Book Review: Ghost Variations – Schumann’s Spirit Communicates from Beyond the Grave 💀🎻🎼

“My name is Jelly d’Arányi. I am the only woman who has ever had my name. I am the only woman who shall ever live my life. And live it I have, and I do, and I shall.” ~ Jessica Duchen, Ghost Variations

Ghost Variations: The Strangest Detective Story in Music is a perfect book for Halloween.

This book is not a traditional ghost story replete with creepy sounds that go bump in the night; Ghost Variations is derived from an actual occult experience in 1933, during which an important message from a genius musical spirit ‘speaks’ at a private séance conducted with a Ouija board.

An original Ouija board

As I was researching the violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim, I came across Jessica Duchen’s fabulous novel, which is narrated predominantly from the point of view of the violinist Jelly d’Arányi, a siren Hungarian virtuoso, who as grand niece of Joseph Joachim, made a name for herself as a soloist based in London.

I was totally absorbed in the book from the outset. It is beautifully written,  impeccably researched, as well as being musically and historically authentic. The colourful characters (both real and fictional), come off the pages in high definition life.

It’s hard enough to write fictional characters, but to base a work of fiction on mostly real people and events must be even more so…

I read Ghost Variations in a handful of sittings; it totally drew me in to the fictional tale of this real life violinist – slightly past her prime – living an extraordinary life in the Art Deco zeitgeist.

Based on her character in the novel I would love to have met Jelly d’Arányi. I feel Jessica captured her ‘essence’ perfectly: vivacious, glamorous, gracious, kind, musically brilliant but not a diva, vulnerable, courageous, and paradoxically both naïve and worldly.

She has known love, but is dedicated to her Bergonzi violin and her art: music.

The novel is set in the late thirties; Jelly is unmarried and approaching forty with arthritic joints that hamper her playing.  She finds her own fame fading simultaneously with the rise of the young violin superstar, Yehudi Menuhin based in America.

Jelly lives with her sister Adila Fachiri, her lawyer husband Alex, daughter Adrienne and pet dog Caesar in Netherton Grove. Their home is affectionately dubbed Hurricane House, a warm and bohemian base for Jelly as she travels across the UK for her paid concerts as well as a series of cathedral charity concerts during the depression.

Portrait of Jelly d’Aranyi by Charles Geoffroy Dechaume

The story begins after a concert when Jelly, her secretary Anna and their hosts, play a glass game. Jelly, although skeptical, still takes part, but when the spirit of composer Robert Schumann mentions her sister, she gets cold feet and leaves the room. At first she cannot accept the spirit messages are real, and tries to put the episode out of her thoughts.

However, events conspire and in a glass game with her sister Adila (known for her psychic abilities), and their close family friend and spiritualist, the Swedish Ambassador, Baron Erik Palmstierna, the voice of Robert Schumann comes through to Jelly, telling her to find and play his forgotten violin concerto.  Although still troubled, this time, Jelly cannot ignore it.

The paranormal nature of its emergence adds all the more mystery and conflict to the story, an imagining of what it must have been like for the talented Hungarian sisters in a time when psychic phenomena was frowned upon.

Jelly and Adila start to research the concerto, the last significant composition by Schumann before he descended into apparent madness, written for their revered great uncle Joachim. After Schumann’s death alone in the sanatorium, Brahms, Joachim and Clara decide not to publish the work, and it is placed in the Prussian State Library in Berlin by Joachim’s heirs, with the instruction that it not be performed for at least 100 years.

1850 photograph of Robert Schumann

When Jelly tells her musical companions about the circumstances preceding its rediscovery, she is met with mixed reactions. Donald Francis Tovey decides that the music itself is the most important thing, not its method of discovery, and helps her locate the score with the help of established German publishers Schott.

Baron Palmstierna visits the Prussian State Library expecting access to the suppressed manuscript, only to be told of its strict embargo, which Schumann’s last remaining daughter, the elderly Eugenie Schumann is adamant should remain unplayed…

Meanwhile Jelly is losing another love, Tom Spring-Rice to a fatal illness (after having lost Australian Olympic athlete, pianist and composer, Sep Kelly during the First World War). She is emotionally fragile, and comes to believe that by performing the world premiere of a long lost violin concerto she can also regain her dignity and rediscover herself.

However, in the wake of the baron’s visit to Berlin, knowledge of the concerto has come to the attention of the Nazi’s, who wish to use it for their own sickening nationalistic purposes, and the world premiere of the piece is awarded by Goebbels to a state sanctioned musician, Georg Kulenkampff, after it has been extensively edited by him, and also secretly by Paul Hindemith.

“Sleeping beauty had been awoken by the wrong prince. Could the spirits not see into the future? Could they not have known, when they chose to speak through the glass game, that the first person on whose ear the concerto would fall might be Adolf Hitler?” ~ Jessica Duchen, Ghost Variations

There is a brilliant and chilling scene towards the end of the novel in which the Strecker brothers, Ludwig and Willy and their colleague Ulli Schultheiss from Schott meet with Goebbels and members of the Reich regarding its publication and performances.

They know that their competitor Breitkopf & Härtel are also angling for first publication of the concerto, and so propose that Yehudi Menuhin also play it in America. Ulli puts his neck on the line to push for Jelly d’Arányi’s moral right to play the London premiere, being the grand niece of its dedicatee.

Being the vile Nazi pig he is, Goebbels is unhappy with his suggestion and threatens Ulli with his demise; but he ultimately agrees, as the music will by then be in the public domain.

Other scenes that reduced me to jelly (if you excuse the pronunciation and pun), is when she receives a visit from Moshe Menuhin, Yehudi’s formidable father. He brusquely asks her to give up the London premiere so Yehudi can be the first to play the concerto in London instead. Jelly refuses.

“Would you save a beloved friend’s life only to see him taken prisoner? I know Yehudi will play it well, but that concerto is not home again until it is here with me.” ~ Jessica Duchen, Ghost Variations

After the publication of Horizons of Immortality by Erik Palmstierna in conjunction with Adila Fachiri in 1937, in which a whole chapter is devoted to the story behind Jelly finding the ‘lost’ Schumann concerto, there is a media frenzy and backlash against her, and Jelly’s nerves are shredded even before she is due to perform the London premiere with Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

As Hitler ramps up his anti-Jewish activities and propaganda, Jelly is subject to increasing racial animosity in London as her foreign accent is being noticed and commented on more frequently. The pre-war situation becomes more tense, but it is nothing compared to the vitriolic reaction to her revelation of ‘voices from the other side’.

The man she loves is trapped in Germany, sitting in the Charlottenburg Opera House, dreading Kulenkampff’s world premiere on 26th November 1937, at which Goebbels and the Führer are also present; knowing deep down he must somehow escape the abhorrent pall of Nazi Germany.

Opernhaus, Berlin c. 1912

Ulli’s despair is poignant, when in London he had promised Jelly that she would be the first to play the concerto, but power and politics have deemed otherwise:

“If Kulenkampff and Böhm, those most rational musicians could not make sense of the concerto, how could anybody?
And yet… within this musical jungle lay a naked beauty so exposed that it seemed almost indecent. Schumann’s soul might be damaged and suffering, but he still gave its entirety. Could it ever have been right to leave this music unheard?
And yet, and yet… there was madness here, a precipice lying ahead in the fog and snow; a spirit filled with love, but lost, unable to master itself. For the first time Ulli began to wonder what happens when insanity is unleashed through art into the soul of others. What exactly did Joachim and Clara know about this piece that made them put it to sleep?”
The transition sounded and the Polonaise emerged into the daylight. The Führer was smiling.
Ulli forced himself to listen to the detail. Kulenkampff’s version was considerably altered, wheras Yehudi had eagerly declared that he wanted to play every note exactly as Schumann had written it, without even the hushed-up Hindemith adaptations. Kulenkampff, ignoring Schumann’s funereal metronome mark, played it as a true Polonaise; yet though his delivery was graceful and elegant, its triumph felt empty. Everything would be alright, it seemed to say, when Ulli knew full well that it would not: only a few months after creating the blazing conclusion, Schumann threw himself off the Dusselforf bridge into the black Rhine.
Final chord. Kulenkampff, domed forehead shining with sweat, his bow aloft, gaze locked for an instant with Böhm’s. The orchestra standing, tired, inscrutable. The Führer, on his feet. The whole audience rising to ape him. And applause. And… Ulli sensed sensed their puzzlement. This was no triumph. That slow movement, exquisite, yet out of kilter; was this concerto after all an insane work for an insane land? What had they done, letting it out?” ~ Jessica Duchen, Ghost Variations

The Kulenkampff recording:

Sadly there was no recording of Jelly’s London performance. Menuhin’s American recording from 1938:

It is 16th February 1938, the date of Jelly’s London premiere of the concerto, described in a crescendo of emotion which has been building throughout the book; fascinating for musicians and non-musicians alike.

Ghost Variations has a strong literary and musical theme, but it is written like a psychological thriller. This is something I also tried to achieve with my novel, The Virtuoso.

I’m in awe at Jessica Duchen’s deft vocabulary and skill in layering in her protagonist’s emotional and musical challenges against the backdrop of a violent time in history: the two are clearly inseparable for Jelly. The novel leaves you rooting for victory and redemption for our gutsy heroine.

We meet Jelly’s real cohorts in music, the larger than life pianist Dame Myra Hess and the indefatigable pianist and music professor, Sir Donald Francis Tovey.

Jelly and Myra in a BBC studio on World Violin Day in 1928

There are so many wonderful touches in the story, from how the sisters talk to each other in their everyday dialogue, the affectionate terms such as ‘Sai’ and ‘Onkel Jo’, to learning about how Bartók had written his violin sonatas for the sisters, and how Jelly had been muse to French composer, Maurice Ravel, who composed Tzigane, his gypsy themed, Czardas type melodies in his virtuosic showpiece for her. Jelly was also a muse to Elgar and Holst.

Ulli’s greetings to the bust of Wagner at Schott’s headquarters in Mainz are entirely plausible, since the Strecker brothers’ father had actually been a close personal friend of the composer.

Jessica explains more about the title of the novel:

Also in 1939, another previously unknown work by Robert Schumann was finally released to the public. It was a set of solo piano variations on the theme that Brahms had adopted from his own Opus 23 Variations (as played to Jelly by Myra in chapter 5). It became known as Geistervariationen – Ghost Variations – because Schumann believed the melody had been dictated to him in his sleep by spirits. What Schumann, in his disturbed state of mind, seemed to have forgotten is that he had already written the germ of this melody himself, in the slow movement of his violin concerto. He was writing the variations when he made his suicide attempt in February 1854.  The day after his rescue from the Rhine, he gave the manuscript to Clara. She preferred to leave it unpublished.

Score of Geistervariationen.

Geistervariationen (Ghost Variations), or Theme and Variations in E-flat major for piano, WoO 24:

The suppression of the concerto after Schumann’s death was probably on balance a good thing, after all it led to a grand unveiling of a piece that may have been more maligned in the direct aftermath of Schumann’s illness, not to mention making a wonderful premise for a modern work of fiction!

It’s as though Schumann’s spirit had re-emerged triumphant after eighty years to right the musical injustice of his unheard violin concerto in D minor.

To put it using Sir Donald Francis Tovey’s vernacular from the novel: there’s no nuff and stonsense in this musical, literary gem!

“She had to be no more tonight than the active component of her violin. No extraneous emotion – and no rustling dress – must upset the flow from Schumann’s mind to the audience’s. A musician is the truest medium there is. She, her technique and the Bergonzi were his channel now from world to world.
She let her sister massage her hands, one at a time. In the hall the orchestra was warming up; some overture was opening the programme, she couldn’t remember which. She tried to blot out all that was extraneous, all that was physical. The concerto existed in sound alone, nothing that could be seen, claimed and owned. Everyone wanted to pierce it with a pin and fix it to a velvet board, but it belonged to everybody and nobody. It was the sum total of all that had passed: imagined by Schumann, nurtured by Clara, fired up by Brahms, twisted by Onkel Jo, guarded by all those gatekeepers, meddled with by Goebbels and Hindemith and even perhaps Ulli. Yehudi, she knew would play it perfectly – so perhaps she and he were allies after all, desiring the best for the work – and whenever it was played, it would be born anew.”

 

Jessica very helpfully elucidates on which characters are real and which are fictional, as well as factual information about Jelly’s life and the fate of her family, friends and colleagues, at the end of the book, plus her extensive bibliography.

It’s well worth reading, and was listed as John Suchet’s favourite read of 2016. Ghost Variations on Unbound.

The Strad 125 Years: Pioneering Female String Players

I’ll bid you a ghostly farewell with a vintage recording of Jelly and Adila playing the Bach Double Violin Concerto:

The Great Virtuoso Violinists/Composers of the 19th Century: Joachim

“How often did the master Joachim himself perform the work, how often did he teach it to countless pupils, and yet nowadays what is passed off as the Brahms Concerto no longer bears any relation to that [work].” ~ Heinrich Schenker

The name Joseph Joachim has been familiar to me for a very long time. I was aware that he was a celebrated and hugely virtuosic soloist, for I saw his name on many violin scores of other composers over the years as I progressed with my violin studies.

Joseph Joachim by John Singer Sargent c. 1904

He had either arranged the piece for the violin and piano part, or written a cadenza. His musical pedigree shone from the pages of multifarious scores, but other than that I didn’t know anything else about him.

So here endeth much of my ignorance, as I attempt to shine the light of appreciation on Joseph Joachim’s life and achievements.

Whilst Joachim was much more famous for his playing career than his composing (as many of my revered candidates in this violin/composer series have been), this Austro-Hungarian maestro was an early trailblazer of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, and in a large measure responsible for its current popularity.

I love him for that alone!

His name is firmly established in the pantheon of violin greats; an exceptional talent on his instrument, and like many gifted musicians before him, he branched out into composing, conducting and teaching, where possibly his greatest legacy and influence still thrives.

Joseph Joachim: (28 June 1831 – 15 August 1907)

Joseph Joachim was born the seventh of eight children to Julius (a wool merchant) and Fanny Joachim on 28th June 1831, in Köpcsény, Hungary (present-day Kittsee, Austria). As an infant he survived the European cholera pandemic, which claimed almost 400 lives in the Pressburg region.

When Joseph was two years old the Joachim family moved to Pest, then the capital of Hungary’s thriving wool industry.  His older sister had stimulated an early interest of music in him from her study of guitar and singing, and a toy violin given to Joseph by Julius seems to have been the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the violin.

Family of influence

Joachim’s cousin on his maternal side was Fanny (nee Figdor) Wittgenstein, who served as a surrogate mother to Joachim throughout much of his youth, mother of the industrialist Karl Wittgenstein, grandmother of the pianist Paul Wittgenstein and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Joseph’s sister Johanna married Lajos György Arányi, a prominent physician and university professor in Pest who, in 1844, founded one of the world’s first institutes of pathology.  Their granddaughters (Jospeh’s grand neices) were  the distinguished violinists Adila (Arányi) Fachiri (1886-1962) and Jelly d’Arányi (1893-1966). Both had studied under Joachim’s protégé, the eminent Jenö Hubay.

Jelly d’Arányi is the protagonist of Jessica Duchen’s novel, Ghost Variations, a fictional tale around the true story of Robert Schumann’s long lost violin concerto, composed for her great uncle Joseph. This book is next on my reading list!

Joseph’s brother Henry followed in the same trade as their father, and settled in England, where he married Ellen Margaret Smart, from a prominent British musical family. Their son Harold Joachim (nephew of Joseph) was educated at Harrow College and Balliol College Oxford. A  respected philosopher and scholar of Aristotle and Spinoza, his most well-known book was The Nature of Truth, (1906).

As an Oxford University professor he taught the American poet T.S. Eliot, who wrote: ‘to his criticism of my papers I owe an appreciation of the fact that good writing is impossible without clear and distinct ideas’ (letter in The Times, August 4, 1938).

He was also said to be a talented amateur violinist and married to one of Joseph’s daughters.

Harold’s sister Gertrude, (Joseph’s niece) married Francis Albert Rollo Russell, the son of British Prime Minister John Russell, and uncle of the philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Early Career 

Joseph received his first violin lessons from Gustav Ellinger, a competent violinist but not the best teacher for the young prodigy, so Joachim’s parents’ placed young Joseph under the tutelage of Stanisław Serwaczyński, the concertmaster and conductor of the opera in Pest, who gave him a thorough grounding in the modern French School, by Viotti’s successors: Rode, Baillot and Kreutzer.

An early debut in Pest brought Joachim to the attention of an important benefactor: Count Franz von Brunsvik, a liberal aristocrat and a pillar of Pest’s musical community, and also the affection of his sister Therese.

Beethoven had dedicated his Appassionata Sonata, Op. 57 to von Brunsvik, who was among the earliest performers of Beethoven’s string quartets. Beethoven was also fond of Franz’s sister, Therese, to whom he dedicated his Op. 78 sonata, and their sister Josephine von Brunsvik, who I believe to have been Beethoven’s mysterious “Immortal Beloved.”

Vienna

The next stage of his musical development was to be in Vienna, where Joseph’s wealthy grandfather Isaac lived, as did his uncles, Nathan and Wilhelm Figdor.

Joachim had a shaky start with teacher George Hellmesberger senior, who doubted Joachim’s future as a virtuoso due to what he considered weak and stiff bowing. At this point Joachim’s parents (who had been in Vienna for his concert), decided that they would return with him to Pest and seek a new profession for their son.

Luckily for Joachim, the celebrated violinist Heinrich Wilhem Ernst was also in Vienna giving a series of highly publicised concerts, and when Joachim’s parents sought his advice he referred them to his own teacher: Joseph Böhm.

Portrait of Joseph Bohm

Böhm proved to be the best mentor to further develop Joseph’s talent. He was well respected as the father of the Viennese School of violin playing.

Robert W Eshbach writes:
Joseph Böhm played in many historically significant concerts, including a performance of Beethoven’s 9th symphony under the composer’s direction. He became an early advocate for Schubert’s chamber music, and, on 26 March 1828, he gave the premiere of Schubert’s opus 100 trio.  Together with Holz, Weiss and Linke of the original Schuppanzigh Quartet, he performed Beethoven’s string quartets under the composer’s supervision. For Joachim, this direct personal and musical connection to Beethoven held a great and abiding significance.
Joachim’s training under Böhm was a true apprenticeship. In accepting him as a student, Böhm and his wife agreed to take him into their home just outside of Vienna’s first district, two blocks from the Schwarzspanierhaus where Beethoven had lived and died. For the next three years, for all but the Summer months, they would raise him in loco parentis, and train him in the practical skills of a professional violinist. Though not a violinist, Frau Böhm played a critical role in the Joseph’s musical upbringing, attending his lessons, and taking personal charge of his practicing.

I find it fascinating how the connections emanating from Beethoven’s life through his compositions, fellow musicians, friends, acolytes and protégé’s seemed to go full-circle in the life of Joseph Joachim!

Shortly before his own recital on 30th April 1843, Joseph had the benefit of seeing the Belgian violinist Henri Vieuxtemps perform in Vienna’s Imperial and Royal Redoutensaal, no doubt an inspiring event.

At his own recital to a burgeoning audience in the same venue, of the Adagio religioso and Finale marziale movements of Vieuxtemps’s fourth concerto in D minor, he made his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Joachim left Vienna in the summer of 1843 to further his studies in Leipzig, where he was to audition for the composer Felix Mendelssohn.

Böhm relented, as his preference had been for his protégé to go to Paris instead.

In August that year Joachim appeared in a Leipzig Gewandhaus concert, with Pauline Viardot-García and Clara Schumann, playing an Adagio and Rondo by Charles-Auguste de Bériot.

London debut and critical acclaim 

Under the guidance and mentorship of composer Felix Mendelssohn, the thirteen year old Joseph wowed an enthusiastic audience in the Hanover Square Rooms on 27th May 1844, with his performance of the hitherto rather unfairly maligned Beethoven Violin Concerto.

Hanover Square Rooms – A Concert in 1843

Vieuxtemps’s Beethoven performance had taken place in Vienna in 1834, but in London there had been no well received recitals of Beethoven’s only violin concerto.

After what must have been a poor performance in London in April 1832 by Edward Eliason, came this scathing review in Hamonicon:

“Beethoven has put forth no strength in his violin concerto. It is a fiddling affair, and might have been written by any third or fourth rate composer. We cannot say that the performance of this concealed any of its weakness, or rendered it at all more palatable.”

Many great violinists, including Ludwig Spohr, had rejected the work outright. “That was all very fine,” Spohr later said to Joachim by way of congratulations after a performance in Hanover, “but now I’d like to hear you play a real violin piece.”

Ouch! Perhaps it is poetic justice that Spohr’s own violin concertos, which only were popular during his lifetime, never reached the current pinnacle of Beethoven’s much loved and enduring work.

Joseph Joachim’s Cadenza for the Beethoven Violin Concerto

I wonder if Joachim realised all that was riding on his debut. Had he not played Beethoven’s ‘fiddling affair’ in such an outstanding manner, his career may have faltered and Beethoven’s only violin concerto may have forever remained in the shadows. That’s quite a lot of pressure to sit, even on the mature shoulders, of a young teenager.

Joseph Joachim in London in 1844

Mendelssohn had put his own reputation on the line, having been invited over as the guest conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1843 and promptly suggesting the wunderkind Joseph Joachim to the society; who had a long-standing ban on child performers.

Eventually, after a few high level auditions, it was agreed that Joachim would play the Beethoven Violin Concerto.

A fabulous vintage recording of Beethoven’s VC played at a jaunty tempo, (Joachim Cadenzas) by fellow Hungarian, Joseph Szigeti, with the British Symphony Orchestra and Bruno Walter:

Joseph was paid the sum total of 5 guineas (with a guinea being equivalent to one pound, one shilling). Quite a disparity with today’s performers, (inflation not withstanding), but it was to be the opportunity of a lifetime.

Felix Mendelssohn in his elation wrote:
“… The cheers of the audience accompanied every single part of the concerto throughout. When it was over and I took him down the stairs, I had to remind him that he should once more acknowledge the audience, and even then the thundering noise continued until long after he had again descended the steps, and was out of the hall. A better success the most celebrated and famous artist could neither hope for nor achieve.”
The reviewer for the Morning Post enthused:
“Joachim, the boy violinist, astounded every amateur. The concerto in D, op. 61… has been generally regarded by violin-players as not a proper and effective development of the powers of their instrument… But there arrives a boy of fourteen [sic] from Vienna, who, after astonishing everybody by his quartett-playing, is invited to perform at the Philharmonic, the standard law against the exhibition of precocities at these concerts being suspended on his account. As for his execution of this concerto, it is beyond all praise, and defies all description. This highly-gifted lad stands for half-an-hour without any music, and plays from memory without missing a note or making a single mistake in taking up the subject after the Tutti. He now and then bestows a furtive glance at the conductor, but the boy is steady, firm, and wonderfully true throughout.
In the slow movement in C — that elegant expanse of melody which glides so charmingly into the sportive rondo — the intensity of his expression and the breadth of his tone proved that it was not merely mechanical display, but that it was an emanation from the heart — that the mind and soul of the poet and musician were there, and it is just in these attributes that Joachim is distinguished from all former youthful prodigies… Joachim’s performance was altogether unprecedented, and elicited from amateurs and professors equal admiration.
Mendelssohn’s unequivocal expression of delight and Loder’s look of amazement, combined with the hearty cheering of the band as well as auditory, all testified to the effect young Joachim had produced.”

On June 4th 1844, as news of his successful debut had spread, Joseph was asked to play for none other than Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort at a state concert in Windsor, attended by Emperor Nicholas of Russia, Frederick Augustus II, King of Saxony, the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel.

He performed Ernst’s Othello Fantasy, and de Bériot’s Andantino and Rondo Russe, (the second and third movements of his violin concerto No. 2 in B minor), accompanied by the Queen’s private band, and received a golden watch and chain from the Queen for his efforts.

 The Liszt years, Hanover and touring

Mendelssohn’s sudden death in 1847 deeply affected Joachim, who was teaching at the Conservatorium in Leipzig and playing on the first desk of the Gewandhaus Orchestra with Ferdinand David.

In 1848 the renowned pianist and composer Franz Liszt invited Joachim to Weimar (once home to Goethe and Schiller) to join his circle of avant-garde musicians, encouraging him to compose. Joachim served Liszt as his concertmaster and seemed to embrace the new “psychological music” as he put it.

It was during his time in Weimar that he wrote his Violin Concerto in G minor, Op. 3, dedicated to his new mentor.

By 1852 Joachim had a change of heart and eschewed the direction of Liszt’s and particularly Wagner’s music of the ‘New German School’ and moved to Hanover. In 1857 he wrote to Liszt: “I am completely out of sympathy with your music; it contradicts everything which from early youth I have taken as mental nourishment from the spirit of our great masters.”

Under the generous patronage of King George V of Hanover Joachim was well paid and given the freedom to compose and undertake concert tours of Europe.

Performance repertoire and dedications

Joachim not only revived Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, but also championed Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin BWV 1001 – 1006 and the much loved ‘Chaconne’ from the Partita No. 2, BWV 1004. Bach is staple canon for any modern violinist both pro and amateur.

How marvellous that Joachim’s good taste still prevails upon modern repertoire…

The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven’s. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart’s jewel, is Mendelssohn’s.” ~ Joseph Joachim

He studied the Mendelssohn violin concerto with the composer, and famously provided inspiration and composition feedback to Johannes Brahms, who wrote his Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 for Joachim.

A marvellous documentary with violinist Gil Shaham about Brahm’s violin concerto and Joachim’s role in its creation and performance:

Brahms’s Scherzo for Joachim, the third movement of the F-A-E Sonata, a passionate rendition from Vengerov and Papian:

He also performed his own version of Tartini’s Devil’s Trill and Robert Schumann’s dedication, Fantasy in C Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 131, previously unknown to me.

A wonderful 1953 recording of the piece arranged by Joachim for violin and piano, with a rhapsodic performance by Russian virtuoso Leonid Kogan and pianist Andrei Mytnik :

Joachim and Clara Schumann undertook a recital tour in late 1857, performing in Dresden, Leipzig and Munich.  They were also well received in London’s St. James’s Hall. Joachim performed yearly in London from 1867 to 1904.

Joseph Joachim and Clara Schumann in Concert by Adolph von Menzel c. 1854

“Then there was a violin solo by young Joachim, then as now the greatest violinist of his time; and a solo on the piano-forte by Madame Schumann, his only peeress! and these came as a wholesome check to the levity of those for whom all music is but an agreeable pastime, a mere emotional delight, in which the intellect has no part; and also as a well-deserved humiliation to all virtuosi who play so charmingly that they make their listeners forget the master who invented the music in the lesser master who interprets it! “~ Excerpt from Trilby, 1894, by George du Maurier

Friendship with Johannes Brahms and the Schumann’s

Through his friendship with Robert and Clara Schumann Joachim was able to introduce them to the twenty year old Johannes Brahms. They would all form a close and lifelong friendship, but not without their disagreements.

Johannes Brahms, German composer with Joseph Joachim.

After many years of friendship and close collaboration, Brahms sided with Joachim’s wife at the time of their divorce. Joseph had accused Amalie of having an affair, but Brahms apparently had thought more highly of her chastity!

Their rift lasted a year, and was mended, at least partially, when Brahms composed his Double Violin Concerto for Violin and Cello.

The King of Cadenzas

Joachim wrote the cadenza as the dedicatee for Brahms’s violin concerto. Joachim’s cadenzas:

  • Beethoven, Concerto in D major, Op. 61
  • Brahms, Concerto in D major, Op. 77
  • Kreutzer, Concerto No. 19 in D minor
  • Mozart, Aria from Il re pastore, K. 208, Concerto No. 3 in G major, K. 216, Concerto No. 4 in D major, K. 218, and Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219
  • Rode, Concerto No. 10 in B minor, and Concerto No. 11 in D major
  • Spohr, Concerto in A minor, Op. 47 (Gesangsszene)
  • Tartini, Sonata in G minor (Devil’s Trill)
  • Viotti, Concerto No. 22 in A minor

Recordings of his cadenzas of Brahms and Mozart:

Hilary Hahn playing Joachim’s cadenza for the Brahms VC:

Mozart Violin Concerto No. 4 in D Major K.218 – 1st Movement – Allegro with Henryk Szeryng, New Philharmonia Orchestra w/Sir Alexander Gibson (Joachim Cadenza at 7.05):

The Joachim String Quartet 

Aside from his illustrious career as one of the most influential solo violinists of his era, Joachim also performed chamber works with his eponymous string quartet.

They gave recitals of Beethoven’s late quartets – high in difficulty and low in popularity, at least until revival by Joachim and his quartet members: Robert Hausmann (cello), Joseph Joachim (1st violin), Emanuel Wirth (viola) and Karel Halíř (2nd violin).

The Joachim Quartet performing in the Sing Akademie zu Berlin in 1903 – engraving based on a painting by Felix Possart

The Joachim Quartet was formed in Berlin in 1869 and quickly garnered a reputation as the finest quartet in Europe at the time. Joachim played in the quartet until his death in 1907.

Joachim’s former teacher, Joseph Böhm had been part of the quartet that had given the world premiere performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 12 in E-Flat Major, Op. 127, now in mainstream chamber repertoire:

The legendary music critic and theorist, Heinrich Schenker on his quartet in 1894:
In the course of recent years, since Hellmesberger senior, the great quartet connoisseur and player, we found only one single quartet that could do complete justice to the demands of Beethoven, Mozart, and Schumann—that quartet was the Joachim Quartet from Berlin.”

Joseph Joachim’s vintage recordings

Please bear in mind that these recordings date back over a hundred and ten years and therefore sound scratchy and hissy by today’s standards, but they are just about clear enough to give you an idea of Joachim’s style.

It’s also worth noting that he was 72 years old at the time of these recordings, playing with swollen fingers and gout, so not in his prime!

Joachim’s Violin Concertos

Violin Concerto in One Movement in G minor, Op. 3 for Franz Liszt:

The so called ‘Hungarian’ violin concerto was composed in the summer of 1857, considered one of the great romantic violin concertos, written in the style of Hungarian folk music, which to Joachim, was inseparable to gypsy music.

Rarely performed, it has been described as “the Holy Grail of Romantic violin concertos” by music critic David Hurwitz.

The concerto premiered on 24th March 1860 in Hanover and was published in Leipzig by Breitkopf and Härtel in 1861.

“The critic Eduard Hanslick recorded Joachim as having been for some ten years the greatest living violinist. His review of the Concerto in the Hungarian Style was more guarded, describing it as too expansive, complicated and striking in its virtuosity to be evaluated at a first hearing.” ~ Keith Anderson

The performance I’m going to share is by Rachel Barton Pine, a musician I admire very much. She recorded the work on the Naxos label in 2003 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to high acclaim.

She was noted as saying that because the concerto is so challenging and lengthy (45 minutes+) practising and performing it was akin to “training to run a marathon”.

Excerpt from Grampohone Magazine:
In 1861, 17 years before Brahms produced his masterpiece in the genre, Joseph Joachim as a young virtuoso wrote his D minor Violin Concerto, In the Hungarian Style. He would later help to perfect the solo part of his friend’s work, but in his own concerto the solo part is if anything even more formidable, one reason – suggested in the New Grove Dictionary – that it has fallen out of the repertory.

Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, with Takako Nishizaki, Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Meir Minsky:

Other Compositions

Hamlet Overture, Op. 4 with Meir Minsky and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra:

Overture in C major, performed by Maastricht Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Roland Bader:

The Overture in C major by Josef Joachim, was composed in 1896 for the imperial birthday of the Kaiser of Germany. It was first performed on 3 February 1896 in Berlin’s Royal Academy of Arts.

The delightful Hebrew Melodies, Op. 9 (after Impressions of Byron’s Songs) for viola and piano (1854–1855), with Hartmut Rohde and Masumi Arai:

Schubert’s Piano Sonata ‘Grand Duo in C Major, D 812’ arranged for orchestra by Joachim as Symphony in C:

Teaching Legacy

Probably Joachim’s most illustrious pupil was Leopold Auer, who himself went on teach some of the greatest violinists of the 20th century:  Mischa Elman, Konstanty Gorski, Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, Toscha Seidel, Efrem Zimbalist, Georges Boulanger, Benno Rabinof, Kathleen Parlow, Julia Klumpke, Thelma Given, and Oscar Shumsky.

“Joachim was an inspiration to me, and opened before my eyes horizons of that greater art of which until then I had lived in ignorance. With him I worked not only with my hands, but with my head as well, studying the scores of the masters, and endeavouring to penetrate the very heart of their works…. I [also] played a great deal of chamber music with my fellow students.” ~ Leopold Auer

Other prominent virtuoso violinists who were tutored by Joseph Joachim included Jenő Hubay, Bronislaw Huberman, Karl Klingler (violinist of the Klingler Quartet and Joachim’s successor at the Berlin Hochschule), Klingler was the teacher of Shinichi Suzuki.

Franz von Vecsey, who studied with Hubay, then Joachim, became the dedicatee of the Sibelius violin concerto.

Andreas Moser (another of Joachim’s pupils), went on to become his assistant, helping to recover the original scores of J.S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, collaborating with Joachim on numerous editions. Moser wrote the first biography of Joachim in 1901.

Joachim’s Stradivarius Violins

From Wikipedia:
In March 1877, Joachim received an honorary Doctorate of Music from Cambridge University. For the occasion he presented his Overture in honor of Kleist, Op. 13. Near the 50th anniversary of Joachim’s debut recital, he was honored by “friends and admirers in England” on 16 April 1889 who presented him with “an exceptionally fine” violin made in 1715 by Antonio Stradivari, called “Il Cremonese”.

The provenance of the ‘Cremonese, Harold, Joachim’ is given in full detail on the intstrument’s listing in Tarisio. Currently housed at the museum in Cremona, here is a 2013 recital of Bach by Antonio de Lorenzi, and it sounds georgeous!

Joachim also played on the ‘Messiah’ 1716 Stradivarius which I have seen on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, on the list of the 12 most expensive violins in history.

He is no longer just a name on a score to me now – rather a fully fledged violin hero…

The Great Virtuoso Violinists/Composers of the 19th Century: Vieuxtemps

“Vieuxtemps’ art – expressive, human, romantic and distinctive – belongs not only to history, but to the contemporary world as well”. ~ Prof. Lev Ginsburg

To my shame and consternation I have never played a piece of music by Vieuxtemps on my violin. I honestly wasn’t that familiar with his repertoire before reading up about him. I knew of him, but I had no idea just how beautiful and virtuosic his music really is.

Henri Vieuxtemps by Marie Alexandre Alophe

An outstanding virtuoso violinist of the romantic era, he mastered his performance craft and was completely in tune with what was and wasn’t possible on the violin; pushing soloists to their technical limits in his violin concertos.

He had almost certainly been influenced by the brilliance of the famous violinist Paganini. The two met in London in 1834 when Paganini was in the twilight of his career and Vieuxtemps had given his debut in the city. Both were said to be mutually impressed with each other’s talents, but differed in their musical philosophy.

Vieuxtemps eschewed excessive showmanship, and although his compositions were undoubtedly rhapsodic and extremely technically challenging, he never sacrificed unbridled virtuosity at the expense of the music. This philosophy was impressed upon his renowned Belgian pupil, Eugène Ysaÿe, who quoted his teacher: “Not runs for the sake of runs – sing, sing!”

If one could know a person through his creative output I would say that Vieuxtemps possessed a great love for the violin and wanted to explore what it was capable of within the parameters of aesthetic enjoyment.  It seems that the virtuosity in his music is the epitome of his flair and improvisational skills, but it is never misplaced or garish.

A man of taste, passion and emotional intelligence, his numerous qualities translated into his solo career and romantic concertos, an enduring legacy for the most poignant and expressive instrument of all…

Henri Vieuxtemps (17 February 1820 – 6 June 1881)

 Although Henri Vieuxtemps, (literally translated as Henry ‘old times’) was incredibly popular during his lifetime his work has slipped into comparative obscurity today.

The young Henri Vieuxtemps – Portrait of a Violinist by Barthelemy c. 1820s

His early development seems to follow a similar path to that of others I have written about in the violin virtuoso/composer series, in that he was a child prodigy from the age of four. Oh what it must be like to be gifted from the get-go! Henri was initially tutored by his father, a weaver by trade, but also an amateur violinist and luthier.

Vieuxtemps the virtuoso

Vieuxtemps made his first public debut playing a violin concerto by Pierre Rode aged six, and later came to the attention of illustrious violinist/composer Charles Auguste de Bériot  at one of a series of concerts in Brussels and Liege. De Bériot became his private tutor and took the young Henri to Paris in 1829, where he made his debut with another Rode violin violin concerto.

The July Revolution of 1830 in Paris and de Bériot’s marriage to Maria Malibran forced his return to Brussels where he continued to perform for a time with Pauline Garcia, de Bériot’s sister-in-law.

During a tour of Germany in 1833 Henri met and became friends with Louis Spohr and Robert Schumann. He also garnered the attention and admiration of Hector Berlioz during his touring of various European cities.

Now established on the European classical circuit Vieuxtemps also made three concert tours of the USA, firstly in 1843 – 44, in 1853 and again 1857 – 58.

Henri Vieuxtemps standing (with his Guarneri violin), alongside noted musicians and composers who performed in John Ella’s 1853 season of the Musical Union. Louis Spohr is seated with his score, with Berlioz next to him.

Perhaps it was the influence of traditional American folk music that inspired his composition of the ‘Yankee Doodle’ Souvenir d’Amérique.

A brilliant encore by Joshua bell:

Vieuxtemps in Vienna

Not content with performance alone he studied composition with Simon Sechter in Vienna, after having performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major as his debut in the composer’s home city. A mature work indeed for a tender teenager of fourteen, and a concerto he would champion throughout his career. He also became a pupil of Antonin Reicha in Paris.

Franco-Belgian School

Vieuxtemps was an influential performer, composer and teacher, especially in the history of the Franco-Belgian School of violin during the mid nineteenth century. The school dates back to the evolution of the modern violin bow such as those made by François Tourte, often referred to as the Stradivari of the bow.

Qualities favoured by the Franco-Belgian School (and most likely epitomised by Vieuxtemps) included elegance, a full tone with a sense of drawing a ‘long’ bow with no jerks, precise left hand techniques, and bowing using the whole forearm while keeping both the wrist and upper arm quiet, (as opposed to Joseph Joachim’s German school of wrist bowing and Leopold Auer’s Russian concept of using the whole arm.)

Vieuxtemps the composer

What stood out for me listening to and discovering his violin music and overall oeuvre was the singing, ‘bel canto’ quality of the violin, especially in the higher registers. This is a quality that Tartini also embodied. The works aren’t overly violin dominated but encompass the entire orchestra in partnership with the violin and are richer for it.

Whilst he may not be on par with Beethoven in terms of composition, (whom he admired and performed), alongside Bach, Mozart and Mendelssohn, he certainly used his intimate knowledge as a player to bring out the emotion, rising above the obstacles of technical difficulty.

His violin music has a freedom to express emotion that is most endearing and attractive for a soloist; enabling a player to impart their own style and personality on the music.

Vieuxtemps’ violin concertos

Henri Vieuxtemps wrote seven violin concertos, the first being completed in 1836, but published as number 2 in F sharp minor, opus 19. Hrachya Avanesyan does the honurs:

Violin Concerto No.1 in E-major, Op. 10 (actually his 2nd), performed by Misha Keylin with Dennis Burkh and the Janácek Philharmonic Orchestra:

Violin concerto No. 3 in A Major, Op. 25 composed in 1844, performed by Misha Keylin:

Violin Concerto No. 4 in D minor, Op. 31

The most famous of his violin concertos was number 4 in D minor, composed while he was in Saint Petersburg as the court violinist to Tzar Nicholas 1 of Russia in 1846. Unusually for a violin concerto it has four movements, which Vieuxtemps (rather astutely in his experience as a performer), advised that the challenging ‘off-beat’ third movement was optional for programming purposes.

The orchestra’s opening few bars of the concerto are gentle, lush and romantic, with a dramatic, if slightly melancholy melody that soon reaches a crescendo infused with a dark edge, hinting at unknown depths…

When the violin makes its expressive and singing entrance, free and interpretive, forward moving with increasing tempo and power in the higher notes, a certain forcefulness in the chords, virtuosity in the runs and harmonics – a drifting and energetic solo using the whole range of the instrument – you have a concerto worthy of immortality!

I love this fantastic performance by Hilary Hahn and the Berlin Philharmonic. Hilary has been playing this concerto since the age of ten, and rightly knows it inside and out! She brings a certain ‘je ne sais quois’ to it:

To my mind it’s better and more complete with the 3rd movement included; said to be difficult even for professional violinists with its the tricky rhythm between soloist and orchestra, but at the same time lilting and lyrical with a rather playful quality, especially in Hahn’s gorgeous interpretation.

The final runs in the 4th movement indicate a March like theme with impressive motifs and changing melodies. It’s what Hilary Hahn refers to as a ‘finger twister’!

I am in awe of anyone who can play this concerto, especially the section in the finale that requires the fingers of left hand to move in alternating small and large increments whilst the right, bow arm and hand keep the pressure in the sweet spot so that 3 strings are simultaneously depressed; a violin multi-tasking mind bender!!

Another performance of this beautiful concerto I really like is by the late Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux:

Violin Concerto No. 5 in A minor, Op. 37 ‘Grétry’ written in 1861, played by Shlomo Mintz:

Violin Concerto No. 7 in A minor, ‘À Jenő Hubay’, Op. 49 c. 1870 (Op. 3 posthumous) with Misha Keylin:

Salon, concert and chamber works

I adore this rather operatic style composition for violin and orchestra, the Fantasia Appassionata in G minor, Op. 35 in this wonderful 1980 recording performed by Gidon Kremer and the London Symphony Orchestra with Riccardo Chailly:

Ballade et Polonaise Op. 38 with Heifetz:

Romance sans paroles Op. 7 Nos 2 & 3 with David Oistrakh:

Vieuxtemps ‘Reverie’ with Lola Bobesco:

David Nadien plays Vieuxtemps’s Regrets:

Duo Brilliante in A Major, Op 39 for violin, cello and orchestra with Aaron Rosand:

Elegie for Viola and Piano Op. 30 with Robert Diaz and Robert Koenig:

Capriccio in C minor for Solo viola ‘Hommage à Paganini’ played with heart and soul by Anna Serova on the Amati 1615 ‘La Stauffer’ Viola:

The ‘Vieuxtemps’ Guarneri del Gesù Violin – the most expensive violin in the world

Famed violin maker Guarneri del Gesù made the violin in 1741, three years before his death, and it was used extensively by Henri Vieuxtemps in his performances as a virtuoso violinist.

Later musicians who played the Vieuxtemps Guarneri included Yehudi Menuhin, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Joshua Bell.

The violin’s excellent condition and undisputed provenance led to a steady increase in price and the instrument was sold to an anonymous buyer in 2012 by J & A Beares in London in conjunction with Paolo Alberghini and master violin restorer, Julie Reed-Yeboah. The final record-breaking price was said to be somewhere in the region of $16 million, with the purchaser gifting lifetime use of the ‘Viuextemps’ to the ecstatic virtuoso violinist, Anne Akiko Meyers.

As Anne says, with other legendary violins owned and played by Paganini, Kreisler and Heiftez now resting largely unheard in museums, it is a precious gift to have the ‘Viuextemps’ being played on!

Anne gave this moving interview after receiving the violin – ‘Art and Soul’ of World’s Most Expensive Violin:

Anne Akiko Meyers History of  ex-Vieuxtemps Guarneri Del Gesu:

‘Vieuxtemps’ Guarneri Del Gesu Returns To The Concert Stage…

News coverage of the sale by npr.

Russian legacy

Henri Vieuxtemps achieved great success and popularity in Russia. He made two concert tours there in 1837 and 1840 as well as his later 5 year stint at the Imperial Court. Perhaps his lasting legacy from his most revered time in Saint Petersburg (1846 – 1851), was his founding of the Violin School of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory and his early guidance of the ‘Russian School’.

The teachers that followed him in Saint Petersburg were violin luminaries Henryk Wieniawski and Leopold Auer, whose students inlcuded some of the greatest violinists of the twentieth century, such as Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, Efrem Zimbalist, Georges Boulanger, and Oscar Shumsky.

Final Years

An excerpt from Robert Cummings’s Biography sums up Vieuxtemps’ final years:

“He took a teaching post at the Brussels Conservatory in 1871, where his students included Eugène Ysaÿe, and two years later suffered a stroke resulting in paralysis of his right arm. This episode effectively ended his career as a soloist, though he eventually regained enough ability to perform chamber music in private concerts. He was also able to compose in his last decade. In 1879, he moved to Algeria where his daughter lived. His inability to play with proficiency in his final years was a source of great frustration for him.”

I feel strongly that Henri Vieuxtemps deserves more recognition and to be heard regularly on stage and in recordings.

Memorial to Henri Vieuxtemps in Verviers

I hope you have enjoyed his music as much as I have during my venerative Vieuxtemps interlude!

A Courageous Experiment that will Make you See Music and Beauty Differently

“Spontaneity is a meticulously prepared art.” ~ Oscar Wilde

At 7.51 am on Friday 12th January 2007, an unassuming lone male figure dressed in a long sleeved T-shirt and baseball cap played the most spiritually uplifting violin music there is, on a £3.5 million Stradivarius, to oblivious passing commuters at the L’Enfant Plaza on the Washington Metro.

The subway experiment:

Normally classical music fans, and in particular, violin aficionados pay around $100 to attend a Joshua Bell concert, for the chance to listen to one of the greatest living violinists.

I saw Joshua Bell in a performance of Schubert with Jeremey Denk in Vienna a few years back. It was very special. I got to meet him briefly afterwards, and I cannot think of a more down to earth, approachable and lovely person as he. It also helps that he’s pretty much flawless on the violin too…

Joshua Bell in Vienna

The experiment was thought up by Joshua Bell and Gene Weingarten, a Washington Post journalist, curious to see if someone of Joshua’s fame and reputation would elicit large crowds and a hefty amount of coinage in his case.

The outcome of the 45 minute busking session was shocking – of the 1097 people that passed by Joshua that morning, only 7 people stopped to listen for a minute or longer, and the ones who tended to want to stop most were children.  Joshua had received little over $32 for the entire session.

I’m not sure many other professional violinists would have undertaken a similar experience…

For lesser virtuoso’s that kind of reception would likely have cleaved a severe dent in their ego, but Joshua Bell, I think, was able to look objectively at what happened. It had no bearing on his skill on the violin.

It had everything to do with perception, placement and people’s capacity to enjoy something despite its context and their preconceived ideas.

Buskers, although many are highly talented, are not usually in the same league as a concert soloist. We tend to disregard them unless we like what we hear. No matter their skill level my children always stop for buskers.

It was early in the morning and people were naturally rushing to work so they weren’t really focused on anything else. The dismal results highlight how often we can live in a kind of manic, 21st century stress bubble.

Our schedules are crammed to the hilt; we don’t appear to have a nanosecond to enjoy the finer things in life. But such a blinkered attitude means we miss out on what’s really around us.

“Some of the most thrilling things in life are done on impulse.” ~ Syrie James (The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen)

It’s time to open up our awareness and take a deep, abdominal sniff of the roses – really smell and devour their glorious scent – make it a part of us.  Let that divine aroma mingle in our blood as it pulses around our body and nourishes our cells.

Stop and listen to the music if you can, it’s highly beneficial for human beings. Pause and appreciate a work of art, read an excerpt of a classic text and truly digest what message, what heart-felt passion and skill went into its creation.

One of the best violinists in the world was playing music that speaks to the soul on a Golden Period Stradivarius, and barely anyone could truly appreciate it. This wasn’t just any old music played on a shoddy instrument by an amateur – this was mastery – mastery of composition, of violin construction and musicianship.

It makes you think what else we might miss if our radar isn’t attuned to art, nature, beauty, literature and music, our whatever it is that elevates our soul. The universe is ‘speaking’ to us all the time, but are we listening?

Many opportunities for joy may pass us by if we are in a kind of awareness stupor, only concerned with the banalities of life. To be fair, maybe some people didn’t recognise or know who Joshua Bell is; but surely the heavenly music would have roused them from their cultural cocoons for just a minute?

It’s a sad day when a person’s life is so devoid of feeling or joy that they cannot spare such a short time to enrich it.

Here’s the article that Gene wrote after the experiment in the Washington Post.

The Man with the Violin

The experiment prompted children’s author Kathy Stinson to write a glorious book about it: The Man with the Violin. Kathy put herself in the shoes of one of one of the children who may have passed Joshua that cold wintry morning and wrote it from a young boy’s point of view.

When I discovered this book I had already seen the experiment and knew that my daughters would love it. They do, and so do I, because it reminds me to pay attention to what my children pay attention to, and to live in and enjoy the moment.

It’s beautifully written with a beautiful message and evocative illustrations.

Context

One of the lessons of this enlightening experiment was context. It turns out that time and place matter, that expectation has an impact on our experience and enjoyment. When we have paid a considerable amount of money to sit in a concert hall and hear the amazing acoustics of a hotly billed soloist we are in the right frame of mind to get the most out of that experience.

Spontaneity is not something that the majority of people who passed him seemed to possess. It also demonstrated that people tend not to value something unless they pay for it.

His follow-up performance at Washington Union Station in 2014 was much more successful! It helped that the event was publicised, so people knew in advance what was happening.

Joshua Bell is very eloquent when he talks about the experience and classical music in general:

I love his passion for children to have a musical education and how that impacts on their lives as well as their test scores. Music (of any kind) is not a nice to have, it’s as essential as maths and literature. It’s fundamental to our well-being on a mental, emotional, physical and spiritual level.

So whatever floats your boat, be it music, literature, art, or being in nature, take time to enjoy it and let its beauty infiltrate your life and revitalise your soul.

“No matter how many plans you make or how much in control you are, life is always winging it.” ~ Carol Bryant

One of the Most Powerful Performances I’ve ever Seen… 🎼🎧🎻

“Music says that which cannot be said, but which cannot remain silent.” ~ Victor Hugo

When a composer and a musician are both emotionally and musically in tune, the result can be an unforgettable recording that speaks to your soul. Such heart-felt performances usually manifest in glorious interpretations that create some of the most legendary, memorable, mind-blowing and totally magical moments in musical history.

sibelius-vc-allegro-moderato

A section of the Allegro moderato from my violin score

Such performances give you the sense that the musician really understood what the composer wanted the listeners and audience to feel and experience. As Beethoven, (played to perfection by Gary Oldman) so eruditely stated in the film Immortal Beloved:

“It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer. The listener has no choice. It is like hypnotism.”

I’ll probably post these pairings as and when I become struck by their brilliance. For my first example I feel compelled to share a performance by the late French violin virtuoso, Christian Ferras.

Photograph of Ferras taken on a tour of South Africa in 1965, dedicated to the organiser Hans Adler.

Photograph of Ferras taken on a tour of South Africa, dedicated to the organiser Hans Adler.

I recently learned of his existence (I know right, how can a violinist not have heard of Christian Ferras), and I’ve been completely captivated by his talent and romantic Gallic style. For me, he’s up there with Heifetz, Menuhin, Oistrakh and Perlman. This has been a musical discovery to relish and to cherish.

I was impressed with many of his performances, but the one that stood out the most was his vintage recording of the melancholy Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor. There are many wonderful recordings of this lyrical, challenging and thrilling work, but none have reduced me to rubble in quite the same way as Monsieur Ferras!

My emotional defences were penetrated and disarmed by the honest, visceral and virtuosic nature of this particular mid 1960’s performance, under the baton of the young Indian maestro Zubin Mehta.

I’ll save the superlatives for later, now it’s time to kick back, relax and enjoy their outstanding music making:

You may not agree with my musings after listening and viewing, (not everyone does, as per this review in Gramophone), but to me this sublime rendition is full of beauty, passion and pathos. In the Adagio di molto he has tears streaming down his face. Maybe he was suffering from a broken heart and the music ‘spoke’ to him. It oozed out of his eyes and his bow, his fingers and his soul via his Stradivarius.

There is a mournful purity to his sound that cannot be matched. Sibelius and Ferras is truly a match made in heaven.

A section of the beautiful 2nd movement from my score.

A section of the beautiful 2nd movement from my score.

Perhaps the ‘dark’ melody of the Sibelius violin concerto was what resonated with Ferras’s lugubrious temperament. The Allegro moderato (1st movement) and the allegro, ma non troppo (3rd movement) are exhilarating and electrifying.

You can see that he is deeply connected to the soul of Sibelius and to the music. Everything is there for me; flawless technique infused with fire and emotion that produces such wonderful colours, phrasing and nuances that take me to the stratosphere…

Context

I think it helps to understand why this is such a powerful, timeless performance when you know that Sibelius poured his love of the violin into this now popular and widely performed concerto in the classical violin repertoire.

“Dreamt I was twelve years old and a virtuoso.” ~ Jean Sibelius (diary entry from 1915 aged 50)

Jean Sibelius (8th December 1865 – 20th September 1957)

As a young man Sibelius had dreams of being a violin virtuoso and could play the Mendelssohn violin concerto, but his course changed after he failed his audition for the Vienna Philharmonic due to stage nerves. Perhaps that’s why he wrote his only violin concerto, as an expression of that deeply held, but ultimately thwarted dream.

What may have felt like a disaster at the time may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise. His true gift however, was expressed through his writing of music. He may not have made such an impact on the world had he stuck to performance alone, but his compositions will never fade.

Portrait of Sibelius by Albert Edelfeldt c. 1904

Portrait of Sibelius by Albert Edelfeldt c. 1904

Violinist Dean Wang gives his take on the Sibelius Violin Concerto:

An icy image of nature is a good to have in mind when listening to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47, completed in 1903 and revised in 1905. The reason for revision is that the 1904 premiere was largely unsuccessful since the concerto proved too difficult. The 1905 version is considerably less challenging and also perhaps less cluttered.

The concerto starts with soft strings supporting a tranquil and noble solo violin melody. As the music continues, the violin grows more impassioned and suddenly drops from the highest to the lowest registers of the instrument. The violin part grows more and more virtuosic as the orchestra is given an increasingly active role. After a dark second subject in the orchestra, a passionate motif played in parallel sixths in the extreme upper register of the violin, and then a “travelling” theme in the orchestra, the orchestra stops, the exposition (the first part of a traditional sonata form movement) ends, and the solo violin begins an extensive and extremely virtuosic cadenza.

In this sonata-form movement, the cadenza takes on the role of development (the middle section of the sonata form where the composer takes existing musical ideas and transforms them in inventive and interesting ways). The recapitulation (a varied repetition of the exposition) starts even before the cadenza ends, easing us back into the first melody. The movement closes in a brilliant coda with virtuosic violin octaves and inspired counterpoint fusing previously heard themes together.

After the cold intensity of the first movement, the concerto’s second movement provides some degree of relaxation after a melancholic introduction in the winds. We now hear a warm, singing melody in the violin’s lowest register accompanied by horns and bassoons. The largely lyrical movement provides contrasts excellently with the brilliance and relentlessness of the outer two.

The third movement follows the adagio with relentless dance rhythms; some critics note that these “long-short-short-long” rhythms are similar to those found in polonaises, a popular type of dance from Poland. The connection to dance is made even clearer by Sibelius having reportedly described the movement as a “danse macabre” — a dance of death. The dance is combined with intense virtuosic elements in the violin. The violin’s parallel octaves coupled with heavy orchestration bring the dance to a close.

From Wikipedia:

The initial version was noticeably more demanding on the advanced skills of the soloist. It was unknown to the world at large until 1991, when Sibelius’s heirs permitted one live performance and one recording, on the BIS record label; both were played by Leonidas Kavakos and conducted by Osmo Vänskä. The revised version still requires a high level of technical facility on the part of the soloist. The original is somewhat longer than the revised, including themes that did not survive the revision. Certain parts, like the very beginning, most of the third movement, and parts of the second, have not changed at all. The cadenza in the first movement is exactly the same for the violin part. Some of the most striking changes, particularly in the first movement, are in orchestration, with some rhythms played twice as slow.

Christian Ferras was known to have been plagued with lifelong depression, a condition that tragically drove him to commit suicide on  14th September 1982 (aged 49) at the height of his career.

He was one of the pre-eminent violin virtuoso’s of the late 20th century, but his untimely death seems to have curtailed his stardom in a way that never happened with his contemporaries. He just wasn’t around long enough.

Christian Ferras and Yehudi Menuhin were both taught by the Romanian genius George Enescu, and performed the Bach Double Violin Concerto together:

I’m doing my bit to raise awareness of his recordings; such a talent should never be forgotten.

I’d love to hear what you think. Does this performance get inside you like it did me? If not, are there others that grab you in a similar way as the one I have waxed lyrical about between Ferras and Sibelius?

Hommage to Heifetz – One of the Greatest Violinists of all Time

“An artist will never become great through imitation, and never will he be able to attain the best results only by methods adopted by others. He must have his own initiative.” ~ Jascha Heifetz

Jascha Heifetz needs no introduction to anyone familiar with classical music, or a fan of the violin; but out of respect to a great artist, here goes. There will be more than a hint of hero worship! As far as violin playing is concerned, he reached the peak of Mount Olympus. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. He was, quite simply, a legend in his own lifetime.

heifetz_as_a_young_boy

Jascha Heifetz (2 February 1901 – 10 December 1987)

There are shades of Mozart in his youth: as a child prodigy he began playing the violin aged three, gave his first public performance aged five, and was accepted into the St. Petersburg Conservatory aged nine. He was first influenced musically by his father, played for royalty, took Europe by storm as a teenager, thrilled American audiences in Carnegie Hall at the age of sixteen and embarked on his first world tour aged nineteen. The rest, as they say, is history…

Many believe he has done more than any other 20th century violinist to elevate the standard of modern violin playing. But, paradoxically, he wasn’t all about technique. He was that rare breed of musician that transcended the physical boundaries of his instrument and became a true artist. Artistry for me, more so than technique is what sets him apart from other violinists. He took all the skills that were available to him, boundless natural talent, hours of practice, his almost flawless technical skill, emotional and mental mastery, and molded them into his individual, personal style, his unique artistry.

heifetz-quote

He was blessed with divine ability on the violin, which was brought about in a most heart-warming way. As a baby he would cry while his father was looking after him and he did not know how to calm him. Being a professional violinist and concert master of the Vilnius orchestra, (now in Lithuania), Rubin Heifetz would play his violin to baby Jascha, and it stopped him crying!

We should never underestimate the impact of early exposure to music on a human being. Whether they grow up to be one of the greatest musicians the world has ever seen or not, its benefits are immeasurable.

Probably the most well-known superlative that has been heaped on him was the sobriquet and documentary film title: ‘God’s Fiddler’. Even his teacher at the Conservatory in St. Petersburg, the revered Leopold Auer, when asked why he had not mentioned Jascha Heifetz in his list of top students retorted, “He’s not my student, he’s a student of God.”

The celebrated violinist Fritz Kreisler commented after hearing Heifetz’s debut in Berlin, “The rest of us might as well take our fiddles and break them across our knees!” From Kreisler!

heifetz-quote2

In a letter from his father to his uncle, when Jascha was just 10 years old, his father talked of the praise that had been showered on his son, not just by his teachers, but by the St. Petersburg press and musical community, who had been gushing over him after his first professional recital, saying that he was unique, not just in Russia, but in the whole world. The weight of expectation was firmly on his young shoulders.

His name has become synonymous with excellence. Many musicians, regardless of their instrument, have heard the scathing phrase: “He’s no Heifetz!”  The great cellist, Pablo Casals was dubbed the ‘Heifetz of the cello’. Pretty much every performance of Heifetz’s is a masterclass in violin mastery and perfection.

Performances

Jascha Heifetz’s performing career spanned over sixty years, during which time he played in a total of 2,368 performance events. The bulk of his performance was naturally given in recitals, both solo and with orchestras. He made 197 recordings and 82 radio broadcasts. His chamber work was the rarest of his performance appearances, with only 28 concerts under his belt.

By the time he gave his London debut in 1920 he had already sold 20,000 copies of his early recordings.

Jascha Heifetz was a crowd pleaser, an audience wower, he was born to perform.

But all the talent in the world would not have served him without the relentless work ethic and self-discipline that he exhibited throughout his life. The one time he allowed his practice schedule to lapse for a little too long served as a painful, but essential lesson in his blossoming career.

Let’s have a break and listen to some early, vintage recordings of the wunderkind!

Soon after his debut Heifetz performed a devilishly difficult programme piece by Beethoven, the Chorus of Dervishes from The Ruins of Athens.

heifetz-ruins-of-athens

It has triplet fingered octaves, a previously unknown piece to me, but very evocative:

The Russian Revolution ensured that Heifetz remained in America and he became a citizen of his adopted homeland in 1925, where he lived for the rest of his life. At first he settled in New York and moved to California in the late 30’s. During the Second World War he toured camps across Europe with the USO, playing to soldiers to lift morale and give some cultural interlude from the horrors of war.

“The performer must create an illusion for the audience.” ~ Jascha Heiftez

One of his students, professional violinist and pianist, Ayke Agus who later became his accompanist, assistant and confidante, tells of a story that Heifetz had impressed upon her about one such wartime recital.

He had arranged to play to the troops in the open air, but the weather had taken a turn for the worse and on the day of the concert it was raining. Heifetz was offered the chance to pull out of his obligation, but he replied that as long as he could breath, move and walk he would perform.  Only one soldier stood in the deserted, muddy, wet field to listen that day. Ayke insists that Heifetz told her he thought it was one of his best ever performances.

In his later life as his performance career diminished Heifetz would often reminisce to her about his soloist days. She relays the story of when Heifetz played a private concert for Hellen Keller, who very touchingly could feel the music vibrations through her fingertips as she held on the scroll of his violin. She had impressed Heifetz greatly.

Shock, horror, a bad review!

For most of his early life Jascha Heiftez had received nothing but praise. And rightly so, he was one of the most outstanding violinists of his time, and indeed of all time. But his popularity in America, which furnished him with success and freedom, enabled him to let his hair down a little and enjoy the good life. In his own words, Heifetz admitted that it was not until he had reach adulthood that he could behave like a child.

In his childhood he had endured a strict regime of musical studies. It’s certainly understandable that he would want to relax and enjoy the fruits of his success for a while. But the lack of practise during his first four years in America had begun to show in his performance.

Nothing had prepared Heifetz emotionally for a bad review, and when scathing criticism came his way after one fateful New York concert, it wounded him deeply and jolted him out of complacency.  Although his pride was hurt, Heifetz actually agreed with the reviewer that he owed it to himself and music never to be content. It seems he became his own biggest critic from that day on.

After his ego recovered Heifetz applied himself to rigorous preparation and practice schedules before his concerts. He had set the bar impossibly high, and now the challenge was always to live up to an incredibly high standard.

“The discipline of practice every day is essential. When I skip a day, I notice a difference in my playing. After two days, the critics notice, and after three days, so does the audience.” ~ Jascha Heifetz

What really blows my mind was the speed, accuracy and co-ordination of his hands and bow. Heifetz’s hands in slow motion:

Philosophy

Jascha Heifetz believed that the audience should never feel like the artist is struggling to achieve anything. And in all his clips, no matter how fast and furious the piece, or even slow and legato, he has perfect control and makes it look effortless. He likened performance to making the perfect pitch in baseball. No-one would see, or even understand the effort that had gone into it.

His positive mind set comes across brilliantly in a great interview about violin mastery on David Jacobson’s blog.

When once asked by a student, “What are the most important attributes for an artist?” Heifetz responded candidly: “Self-respect musically speaking, integrity and enthusiasm.”

His personal philosophy was drawn from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If, which he carried a copy of at all times. He said of particular relevance to him was the idea of treating the imposters of triumph and disaster just the same. He understood that an artist’s life meant treading that path between the two. Let’s face it; most of what he achieved was a total triumph, even to the extent that his unrivalled standard of perfection made him a target.

He was labelled as ‘cold’ and unemotional. It’s true that he didn’t show feelings so much on his face as is more common now-a-days. How silly for his critics to get their nickers in a twist over a lack of facial expression, when he clearly made the music his mode of expression. This video makes the point perfectly:

Jim Hoyl

At the height of his fame Jascha Heifetz wrote some popular songs under the pseudonym Jim Hoyl, which was easy to use with the same initials.

Here is Heifetz playing the piano to his own song, When You Make Love, which had been sung by none other than Bing Crosby :

He would also travel under this alias so as not to be easily recognised and identified. It struck me that he was humble and modest despite his international fame.

Teaching

After 1974 Heifetz dedicated himself to continuing the teaching legacy of his beloved tutor in St. Petersburg, Leopold Auer. In his own words Heifetz had said about Auer: “The professor was stern and very exacting, but a sympathetic teacher.” I feel these words describe his own pupils’ experiences. Ayke Agus had expressed what seemed close to terror, “It felt like we were victims.” She related how he would cover the technical aspects, the musical aspects as well as make them play on out of tune violins to prepare them for any eventuality they might face as professional musicians.

He held twice weekly lessons structured in the same way as Leopold Auer. My living hero on the violin, Itzhak Perlman, tells of his Masterclass experience as a 14 year old with Heiftez:

There is a great clip of Heifetz himself warming up for practice with scales, left handed pizzicatos and he even plays sections of the first movement of Beethoven’s violin concerto, which consists of beautiful melodic scales!

Ayke tells of how Heifetz would teach them the importance of bowing technique, and how Heifetz impressed on them that the colour of the tone came from the bow arm. He likened it to a painter with a brush never having the same evenness of colour and shade on the canvas, it wasn’t uniform.  He taught them to reach out to people’s hearts.

heifetz-beethoven

Heifetz himself found staccato bowing the most difficult thing to learn and tried to in-still in his students what Ayke Agus refers to as an ‘honest staccato’, which can only be achieved by having a stiff arm, lifting the bow on and off the string slowly and accurately before attempting a fast tempo.

Hora Staccato:

Heifetz did a series of televised Masterclass sessions in the sixties. I have chosen the one dedicated to Bach’s ‘Chaconne’. If you have read this earlier post on one of my favourite pieces of solo violin music, then you will know that Heifetz’s interpretation is untouchable.

Interests and idosyncracies

Jascha became known for deliberately playing badly, in order to demonstrate how not to do it. It was something of a party trick. He was also a keen photographer, ping pong player and motorist. Years before Elon Musk was born, Jascha Heifetz spent a significant amount of his money building his own electric car in 1965.  He didn’t like the smoke and pollution and decided he would do his bit for the environment.

Transcriptions for the violin

Heifetz also adapted other composer’s works for the violin. He met and admired George Gershwin, arranging his songs from Porgy and Bess for the violin.

Being a true patriot he also arranged the Star Spangled Banner:

The story behind one of his most beloved encore arrangements – Estrellita:

Heifetz’s Violins

Jascha Heifetz owned several high value violins, his preferred performance violin being the 1742 ‘ex-David’ Guarneri del Gesù, closely followed by his 1731 Stradivarius.

A touching interview with luthier Hans Benning, who Heifetz chose to maintain his violins:

Violin Concerto Recordings:

There are no words to describe the pure magic of these vintage recordings!

“You can ‘just listen’ to the Brahms violin concerto and enjoy it keenly. But if you read about Brahms’ life, you appreciate it more. And, if you’ve listened to recordings of it, you will appreciate it ten times as much.” ~ Jascha Heifetz

Heifetz’s sound was, and still is distinctive, original and silky, his tonal quality unsurpassed. His sublime phrasing, his unique musical language just send me to another realm and inspire me to practice. I love that you never get sentimentality from Heifetz, but you always get his enthralling blend of power and emotion.

If there was any downside to his stellar success I think it showed-up in his private life. He was married and divorced twice, and by some accounts wasn’t particularly close to his three children. He had to balance his career with his family, and I don’t think his relationship with his own father was a warm one. Heifetz was quite introverted and said in interviews that he had felt lonely at the top. His fame had come at a price.

I hope you’ve enjoyed his music as much as I have, and please share the post if you think the world needs more Heifetzes!

It feels fitting to bow out, (if you’ll pardon the pun!) with Heifetz’s final recital:

The Great Virtuoso Violinists/Composers of the 19th Century: Spohr

Before reading up a bit for this post I was aware that Louis Spohr (named Ludwig, but he preferred the French equivalent Louis), was a virtuoso violinist and younger contemporary of Beethoven, widely known for inventing the violin chin rest in 1820. I’m very grateful to him for that; I really don’t enjoy playing my violin without one. It’s a fabulous creation. I can’t imagine how violinists managed during the baroque era!

Portrait of Louis Spohr composing in Kassel c. 1824

Portrait of Louis Spohr composing in Kassel c. 1824

He also had the foresight in 1812 to use letters on musical scores as an aid to rehearsal. So he was quite the innovator in many ways. When our conductor at Aylesbury would bark something like: “You made a real hash of the passage between D and E, so let’s go back to D again,” you’d be able to find the place in the music very quickly and easily. I had no idea that this bright idea was down to Louis Spohr.

My copy of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto complete with rehearsal letters, shown on all modern music scores.

My copy of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto complete with rehearsal letters, published on all modern music scores.

Louis Spohr: (5 April 1784 – 22 October 1859)

I was pleasantly surprised and impressed to say the least, when I started to discover his many other accomplishments. His musical compositions were largely unknown to me, despite his immense popularity in classical circles during his lifetime. His fame dwindled after his death and only a small portion of his work remains in modern repertoire.

It couldn’t have been easy crafting your notes in the shadow of Mozart and at the same time as the likes of Beethoven, Hummel and Schubert, but to his credit he followed his own path within the parameters of early romanticism.

He was widely known and respected in Europe during the early 19th century as a virtuoso violinist, conductor, teacher and composer.  He was probably the most famous violinist in Europe until Paganini arrived on the scene with his own fiery brand of pyrotechnics.

Statue of Louis Spohr in Kassel.

Statue of Louis Spohr in Kassel.

Like his friend Beethoven, he also believed in democratic freedoms and was known to possess a noble character. He was unusually tall for the time, being over six-foot. Unlike Beethoven, who was the epitome of the lonely, tortured artist, Spohr was a family man who enjoyed a happy social life and varied pursuits like swimming, ice-skating, hiking, gardening, as well as considerable skill as a painter.

Biedermeier period

Whilst Beethoven was creating music that was innovative, immortal and ‘new’ to the ears of early 19th century concert goers, Spohr appears to blend in with the tastes of the zeitgeist, certainly nothing that would upset the apple cart. But when tastes changes, as they invariably do over time, his more traditional music became eclipsed by Beethoven and Schubert.

The so called Biedermeier period (1812 – 1848), saw the rise of the middle class in Europe, paralleling urbanisation and industrialisation, when access to the arts expanded to attract a larger number of people. Biedermeier encompassed literature, music, the visual arts, interior design and architecture.

It seems that Louis Spohr was a product of his era, whereas Beethoven was a musician for all-time. Rather sadly he is sometimes referred to as the ‘forgotten master’.

Liszt at the Piano by Biedermeier painter Josef Danhauser, c. 1840

Liszt at the Piano by Biedermeier painter Josef Danhauser, c. 1840

As I’ve discovered, his music was mostly written in the romantic genre and I was surprised at the many different instruments he wrote for aside from the violin. I believe his music should be more widely heard and performed than it is.  He may not be a Mozart or a Beethoven, but his achievements are worthy of admiration.

Career

Louis was born to musical parents; his mother being a talented singer and pianist whilst his father was an amateur flutist. The young Spohr however, despite starting out on the harp, took to the violin. His first tutor was a violinist named Dufour, who saw an opportunity for his pupil to further his musical learning at the Duke of Brunswick’s court.  He joined the ducal orchestra aged 15.

Three years later he was sent on a year-long study tour of St Petersburg and Moscow with his tutor, violinist Franz Anton Eck. He also wrote his early compositions during this time.

After Spohr returned to Brunswick the duke allowed him to make a concert tour of northern Germany. An influential music critic, Friedrich Rochlitz happened to be in the audience during his recital in Leipzig in December 1804, and wrote a glowing review of both his virtuosity and his opus 2 violin concerto in D minor. Hence Spohr was promptly catapulted into the pantheon of revered violinists of the early 19th century.

German stamp depicting Louis Spohr from 1959

German stamp depicting Louis Spohr from 1959

Spohr became orchestral director at the court of Gotha between 1805-1812 until he landed the job of leader of the orchestra at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna from 1813-15, where he met Beethoven.

His career progressed as he moved to Frankfurt where he took up the post of Opera Director between 1817-19, and thanks to the recommendation of fellow composer, Carl Maria von Weber, he was appointed Court Kapellmeister at Kassel from 1822 until his death on 22nd October 1859. Incidentally, Kassel was also the place where the Brothers Grimm wrote most of their fairy tales in the early 19th century.

During his career and at the height of his popularity Spohr travelled to England on five separate occasions, and was named in an aria from Act 2 of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Opera, The Mikado.

Compositions

Spohr was a prolific composer of many genres: violin concertos, symphonies, clarinet concertos, harp and chamber music, lieder, cantatas, oratorios and operas. I’ve selected a few pieces from each genre to give an overview of his style and talents. He composed a total of 290 works.

 Violin works

Although he wrote eighteen violin concertos, six violin sonatas and various duos for violin and harp he did not set out to write purely for the violin in the same way that Viotti, Kreutzer, Vieutemps or Wieniawski did.

Of particular note is his Violin Concerto No. 8 in A minor, Op. 47 ‘In modo d’un scena cantate’ that just sings in the most mournful, lyrical melody when performed by the incomparable Jascha Heifetz:

 Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 2 by Christiane Edinger and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra:

‘Duo für 2 Violinen’ with David and Igor Oistrakh:

Violin Concerto No. 7 in E minor, Op. 38 (3rd movement) with Takako Nishizaki, Libor Pesek  and the Bratislava Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra:

Sonata in D Major for Violin and Harp, with Sophie Langdon and Hugh Webb:

Duo for Violin and Viola in E minor, Op. 13 with Antje Weithaas and Tabea Zimmermann:

Sonata for Violin and Harp in C minor, a delightful recital by Jean-Jaques Kantorow and Susanna Mildonian:

Concertante No. 1 in G Major, WoO 13 for Violin, Harp and Orchestra (Adagio) with Ursula Holliger, Hansheinz Schneeberger and English Chamber Orchestra:

Concertante No. 2 in E minor, WoO 14 for Violin, Harp and Orchestra, (3rd movement) performed by English Chamber Orchestra, Ursula Holliger and Christoph Poppen under the baton of Heinz Holliger:

Symphonic works

Like Beethoven, Louis Spohr has nine symphonies to his name, and a tenth unfinished!

His Symphony No. 4 in F Major, Op. 86 ‘Die Weihe der Töne’ (The Consecration of Sound), was based on the poems of the same name by Carl Pfeiffer.

Overview from Naxos:

The first movement opens with a slow introduction, illustrating the profound silence before the creation of sound. The Allegro that follows, in traditional sonata form, includes the gentle sound of the breeze and woodwind bird-song, before the storm that forms the central section of the movement, to die out in the distance in the final bars. The second movement demonstrates the function of music as lullaby, dance and serenade, the last with a solo cello. All three finally combine in a conductor’s nightmare of varying bar-lines and tempi.

The third movement shows the role of music as an inspiration to courage, here with a narrative element. Soldiers depart for battle, while in a central trio section those remaining behind express their anxiety, followed by the victorious return of the marching troops and the song of thanksgiving. The final movement buries the dead, to the sound of the chorale ‘Begrabt den Leib’, leading to ultimate consolation in tears.

Here is a recording by the Budapest Symphony Orchestra and Alfred Walter:

Symphony No. 6 in G Major, Op.116 ‘Historical Symphony in the style and taste of four different periods’ composed in 1840, performance by Concertgebouw Amsterdam and Ton Koopman:

  1. Largo-Grave (Bach-Händel’sche Periode, 1720)
  2. Larghetto (Haydn-Mozart’sche Periode, 1780
  3. Scherzo (Beethoven’sche Periode, 1810)
  4. Allegro vivace (Allerneueste Periode, 1840)

Symphony No. 9 Op. 143 ‘The Seasons’ performed by Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra under Alfred Walter:

 Harp and clarinet works

Spohr wrote a significant number of works for, and including the harp, which is entirely understandable as his first wife, Dorette Scheidler, was a renowned harp virtuoso. They were married for 28 years until her death in 1834.

Dorette Spohr, née Scheidler (1787-1834)

Dorette Spohr, née Scheidler (1787-1834)

Fantasie for Harp in C Major, Op. 35 with Lena-Maria Buchberger:

Clarinet Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 26 (3rd movement) with Paul Meyer and the OCL:

Clarinet Concerto No. 2 in E-Flat Major, Op. 57 with Julian Bliss:

Clarinet Concerto No. 4 WoO 20, ‘Rondo al espagnol’ with Paul Meyer and Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne:

Chamber music 

Among his output of chamber music are 36 string quartets, 7 string quintets, a string sextet and 5 piano trios. Probably the most performed in modern repertoire are the Nonet and the Octet, for your listening pleasure below.

Octet in E Major, Op.32 with the Vienna Octet:

Nonet for Wind Quintet and Strings in F Major, Op. 31 with the Consortium Classicum Conducted by Dieter Klöcker:

Piano Trio No. 2 in F Major, Op. 123 with the Hartley Trio :

Concerto for String Quartet & Orchestra Op. 131 (1st movement), composed in Kassel during the last three months of 1845, performed here by Leipziger Streichquartett, Leipziger Kammerorchester and Sebastian Weigle:

Six German Songs 

Spohr’s Six German Songs for Soprano, Piano and Clarinet, Op. 103 are a delightful indulgence of his romantic side! These lovely performances are by Helen Donath, Klaus Donath and Dieter Kloecker:

  1. Be still my heart
  2. In a lilac bush sat a little bird
  3. Longing: I look into my heart
  1. Cradle Song: All is quiet in sweet peace
  2. The Secret Song: There are secret pains
  3. Awakening : Why do you stand and ponder 

 Operas

Of the ten operas Sphor composed the two most popular are Jessonda and Faust.

Jessonda

Jessonda was written in 1822 to the libretto by Eduard Gehe, based on Lemiere’s novel, La veuve de Malabar. Under Spohr’s baton it was first performed on 28th July 1823 in Kassel, and tells the story of an Indian princess (Jessonda), who is condemned to burn on her husband’s funeral pyre; as was the custom for a widow of a recently departed Rajah. She is ultimately spared by a young Brahmin (Nadori) and eventually rescued by the Portuguese General she was in love with (Tristan d’Acunha). It was popular in 19th and 20th century repertoire until it was banned by the Nazis.

Overture to Jessonda:

Jessonda – Selected highlights with Gerd Albrecht leading the Hamburg State Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera Chorus and Julia Varady and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the main roles:

The Tristan Chord

So, the big question is, did Wagner take inspiration from Spohr to create his famous chord?

I might ignite some controversy here!

The Tristan Chord in Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner

The Tristan Chord in Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner from Wikipedia.

Much has been made of the Tristan Chord in the opening bars of Wagner’s beautiful, romantic opera, Tristan und Isolde; but composer and musician Dr. Dick Strawser, who was quite taken with aspects of Jessonda noticed the following:

Now, what I found in the vocal score of Spohr’s Jessonda – opening the main character’s entrance aria – was an almost identical passage: the same key, the same 6/8 meter and (as I recall) the same rhythms but, more importantly, virtually all the same pitches but one – the next-to-last note in Spohr is a C-natural, an “upper-neighbor” embellishment, where Wagner’s A-sharp is a chromatic passing tone.

Spohr composed his opera in 1823.

Yet no one calls it “The Jessonda Chord.” Nor does anyone accuse Wagner of plagiarism, either.

Was Jessonda so forgotten 25 years later that Wagner could steal this, even subconsciously, without anyone noticing? Hmmmm…

Wagner aficionado Stephen Fry:

A beautiful aria ‘Ich bin allein’ from Act Two of Faust:

Spohr the conductor  

Louis Spohr was one of the first musicians to use a baton when conducting. Imagine the orchestra’s surprise when their leader, instead of using his bow, put his violin down, took a wooden stick out of his pocket, got up and turned the music stand to face the orchestra where he proceeded to wave it about in time with the music.

Later in his musical career after he had scaled back his violin performance schedule, his reputation as an eminent conductor meant that he continued to receive many invitations to music festivals and various events, including the unveiling of Beethoven’s statue in Bonn in 1845.

He championed Wagner’s music and also played Beethoven’s late quartets, even though it seems he was as baffled by them as audiences were at the time. He also played with Beethoven during rehearsals of the Piano Trio No. 1 in D Major,  Op. 70 ‘The Ghost’ in 1808, commenting on how Beethoven, almost devoid of his earlier technical abilities, hammered away on the ivories and that his piano was out of tune, but he must have made allowances for Ludwig’s hearing loss.

A wonderful recording of ‘The Ghost’ with Daniel Barenboim, Jacqueline du Pre and Pinchas Zukerman:

Violin School

Spohr made many valuable contributions to violin technique in the early 19th century and was a proponent of the Mannheim School. He taught around 200 pupils during his career. If I ever find myself in Kassel I’ll be sure to visit his museum there!

Beautiful Violin Gems 🎼🎻 of the 3 B’s: Bériot, Bull and Bazzini

“The true mission of the violin is to imitate the accents of the human voice, a noble mission that has earned for the violin the glory of being called the king of instruments.” ~ Charles-Auguste de Bériot

I thought it was time to share some lesser known, but brilliant violin works from the nineteenth century. It’s been a little while since my last ‘musical’ post and I’m getting withdrawal symptoms. Plus, I’ve been having technical problems, my old PC has gone to the scrap heap in the sky. The inevitable data retrieval is proving arduous, so in the spirit of a true musician, I’m having to improvise!

The Rehearsal by Edgar Degas

The Rehearsal by Edgar Degas

Romantic violin pieces flourished in the nineteenth century,  the heyday of romanticism. I’ll present these three violin aces and their music in the order of their birth.

Charles-Auguste de Bériot (20 February 1802 – 8 April 1870)

Although he was born in Leuven, Belgium, de Bériot spent the majority of his musical career in Paris. At the Conservatoire de Bériot was tutored by Jean-François Tiby, an acolyte of Viotti. He was also influenced by Baillot and Viotti directly, as well as Paganini (elements of the latter can be heard in the style and virtuosity of his music).

Charles-Auguste_de_Bériot_byCharles Baugniet circa 1838.

Charles-Auguste_de_Bériot_byCharles Baugniet circa 1838.

He played for royalty in France and the Netherlands as well as touring London and Europe. De Bériot was also proficient on the piano and toured much of China against the emperor’s wishes.

His first wife was the celebrated mezzo soprano opera singer, Maria Malibran, who bore him a son in 1833. Charles-Wilfrid de Bériot became a piano professor who counted Maurice Ravel, Ricardo Vines and Enrique Granados among his pupils. Sadly, Maria died at the tender age of 28 (after a riding accident), and de Bériot moved back to Brussels.

In Leuven he met Marie Huber in a cafe of all places. She was an orphan but had been adopted by by Prince von Dietrichstein, making her step sister to his piano legend son, Sigismund Thalberg. It seems to have been a small world in the musical circles of Europe…

Portrait of Charles-Auguste de Beriot by Emile Jean-Horace Vernet.

Portrait of Charles-Auguste de Beriot by Emile Jean-Horace Vernet.

De Bériot later became the chief violin instructor at the Brussels Conservatory where he established the Belgian-Franco School.

Among his followers were the virtuoso violinists Hubert Leonard, Henri Vieuxtemps and Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst.

He was forced to retire from teaching and performing in 1852 due to failing eyesight and became completely blind by 1858. Unfortunately his ill health continued and he had to have his left arm amputated in 1866.

Compositions

De Bériot wrote pedagogical studies for students, such as the Violin Method Opus 102 and His First 30 Concert Studies Opus 123 for soloists wanting to perfect their technique and skills prior to performing major violin concertos. His output includes various romantic violin pieces that were sometimes used for encore performances in addition to ten violin concertos. His music has fallen into relative obscurity, so I think it’s time to dust it off and give it an outing!

The fabulous Scene de Ballet, Op. 100 with Itzhak Perlman and the Juillard Orchestra conducted by Lawrence Foster:

Violin Concerto No. 9, Op. 104 with Takako Nishizawi:

Third movement of Violin Concerto No. 9, Op. 104 (performer unknown):

Duo Concertante No. 1, Op. 57 for two violins with Maxine Kwok-Adams and Philip Nolte of the LSO:

A soulful interpretation of Violin Concerto No. 7 in G Major, Op. 76 with Laurent Albrecht :

“If Ole Bull had been born without arms, what a rank he would have taken among the poets – because it is in him, and if he couldn’t violin it out, he would talk it out, since of course it would have to come out.” ~ Mark Twain in a letter to William D. Howells, April 19, 1880

Ole Bornemann Bull (5 February 1810 – 17 August 1880)

This energetic and eccentric Norwegian prodigy didn’t follow the usual path to virtuosity, due to his extremely creative bent and a desire to do things his own way.

Ole_Bull_playing

Ole Bull playing his Gasparo da Salo violin

Norwegian violinist Ole Bull has received less attention than the other composer/virtuosi of the nineteenth century. Perhaps because a good portion of his performance activity took place in the United States, where less of a historical perspective on 19th century music-making has developed among performers. Bull was Norway’s first real celebrity, and as a virtuoso he was something of a rock star, playing on the emotions of audiences in a way Sarasate, for example, did not.

How many other violin virtuosi have played at the top of a pyramid in Egypt? Probably none! Bull certainly led an interesting life…

From the Violin-man.com:

During the season 1836—37 he played 274 concerts in England and Ireland; in 1839 he visited the great German violinist and composer Spohr in Kassel, in the hope of receiving useful advice from him. In 1840 he played Beethoven’s Krentzer So­nata in London, with Liszt at the piano. On July 23, 1849, he announced the formation of a Norwegian Theater in Bergen, which was opened on Jan. 2,1850. While he failed to impress serious musicians and critics in Europe, he achieved his dream of artistic success in America; he made 5 concert tours across the U.S., playing popular selections and his own compositions on American themes with such fetching titles as Niagara, Soli­tude of the Prairies, and To the Memory of Washington, inter­spersing them with his arrangements of Norwegian folk songs.

I found this short documentary about the man, his music and his idiosyncrasies (such as shaving off the top of the bridge to enable him to play chords on all four strings simultaneously) quite informative:

Luthier Gasparo da Salò

In 1842 Ole Bull bought a very richly decorated da Salò violin, originally made in 1570 for the treasure chamber of Archduke Ferdinand I of Tyrol. He used it on tour along with a magnificent Guarneri del Gesu and a large Nicolo Amati model, for nearly forty years of frenzied, fiery improvisation and recital.

Ole Bull's Gasparo da Salo violin.

Ole Bull’s Gasparo da Salo violin.

I adore the deeper, darker, unique sound of Ole Bull’s Violin, made by Jean-Baptiste Villaume:

Compositions

It’s thought Ole Bull wrote as many as seventy pieces in his lifetime, but only around ten of those endured and continue to be performed in modern repertoire.

This is totally seductive and beguiling! ‘Cantabile doloros e Rondo giocoso’ with Charlie Siem and the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios:

Violin Concerto in A major, “Grand Concerto’, Op. 4 (1834; revised 1864) with Annar Follesø with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, conducted by Ole Kristian Ruud:

This sweet tune is an example of his love for Norwegian folk songs, arranged for violin and orchestra by Johann Svendsen – Sæterjentens Søndag (The Herd-Girls’ Sunday):

Polacca Guerriera played with virtuosic flair by Marek Pavelec:

La Verbena de San Juan: Spanish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra with Annar Follesø:

Fantasy And Variations On A Theme By Bellini and other gems by Arve Tellefsen:

It seems that he was friends with Pianist and composer Franz Liszt, and Robert Schumann wrote that Bull was among “the greatest of all,” extolling that he was on par with Niccolò Paganini for the speed and clarity of his playing.

“His violin, which transforms all your soul, combines enthusiasm with perfect intonation … his mastery of the bow … produces a song that resembles the human voice, and he has the technique for the most difficult whims found in Paganini, executed without hampering true expression.” ~ Review by a Milanese Critic after hearing Bazzini perform on the violin in 1839

Antonio Bazzini (11 March 1818 – 10 February 1897)

Bazzini was born in Brescia, Italy into a long established Brescian family dating back as far as the 1400s.

Antonio_BazziniHis early introduction to literature, culture and music was provided by his grandfather, Antonio Buccelleni, who had written poems, sonnets and odes, some of which formed the basis of Bazzini’s early compositions.

His first violin instruction was under Kapellmeister Faustino Camisiani, and by the time of his death in 1830 young Antonio was a competent eleven year old violinist.

Bazzini’s fame as a violin virtuoso overshadowed his composing and teaching, he was regarded as one of the finest concert violinists of the 19th century.

From Naxos:

At seventeen Bazzini was himself a maestro di cappella for the church of San Filippo in Brescia. His early works were often religious in nature, and while at San Filippo he wrote Masses, Vespers, and six oratorios. His life materially changed on 20 March 1836, when he played first violin in a quintet by Luigi Savi. The work was dedicated to Paganini and the dedicatee was in the audience. Paganini advised the young man to tour as a virtuoso, and Bazzini took this advice to heart. Beginning in 1837 he toured Milan, Venice, Trieste, Vienna, and Budapest; from 1841–1845 he toured Germany, Denmark, and Poland.

For several years he lived in Leipzig, where he studied the German masters. While in Germany, Bazzini performed with Mendelssohn’s Gewandhaus Orchestra, reputedly giving one of the first private performances of Mendelssohn’s E minor Violin Concerto. In 1848 he undertook a tour of Spain and in 1852 he settled in Paris. In 1864, after a final concert tour in the Netherlands, he returned to Brescia and concentrated on composition; he also championed instrumental music in Italy through string quartet performances at the home of Gaetano Franchi and the creation of the Società dei Concerti. Among the soloists Bazzini brought to Italy were Hans von Bülow and Anton Rubinstein, in 1870 and 1874 respectively.

Along with Verdi, Bazzini had an important rôle in establishing standard concert pitch (440 Hz), which was first recognised in Italy by the Congresso dei Musicisti Italiani in 1881. In 1873 he was appointed professor of musical theory and composition at the Milan Conservatory and became director of the same institution in 1882. Among his pupils at the Milan Conservatory were Mascagni and Puccini.

Compositions

He returned to Brescia after touring, where he focused on composing. During this time he wrote an opera, Turanda, cantatas, sacred works, concert overtures and symphonic poems (Francesca da Rimini). His chamber music proved to be his most successful pieces as far as composing was concerned.

The insanely virtuosic show piece, Scherzo Fantastique, Op. 25 La ronde des Lutins performed superbly by Maxim Vengerov and Ingo Dannhorn:

James Ehnes is cool, calm and collected, yet manages to set his 1715 ‘Marsick’ Stradivarius on fire…

As popular show pieces tend to be arranged for other instruments, I thought I’d treat you to one for the cello and piano by Duo Toivio; cellist Seeli Toivio and pianist Kalle Toivio :

An incredible transcription for classical guitar of ‘La Ronde des Lutins’ by. Alexey Zimakov:

Violin Concerto No. 4 in A minor, Op. 38 with Aldo Ferraresi, Orchestra ‘A. Scarlatti’ di Napoli della Rai conducted by Franco Gallini:

‘Calabrese’, Waltz in E minor, Op. 34, a splendid vintage recording with Yehudi Menuhin and Adolph Baller:

Fantasia on themes from Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ Op. 50 with Claudio Voghera and Francesco Manara:

I’ll bid you farewell now, (the hungry hordes are waiting for their tea), echoing Shakespeare’s immortal verse: If music be the food of love…play on!

Celebrating a Monumental Musician and Man: Yehudi Menuhin

“Music creates order out of chaos: for rhythm imposes unanimity upon the divergent, melody imposes continuity upon the disjointed, and harmony imposes compatibility upon the incongruous.” ~ Yehudi Menuhin

When asked to think of a violinist, probably one of the first names that would come to mind is Yehudi Menuhin. I’m going to sound-off a bit (in a good way), as today marks the centenary of his birth, (22nd April 1916).

Yehudi Menuhin violin quote

Perhaps being British I was exposed to his music more than say, the likes of his contemporaries, Jascha Heifetz or David Oistrakh, but he’s undoubtedly one of the giants of the 20th century and revered by many current soloists. Not just for his supreme talent on the violin, or indeed his teaching and music school, or his conducting, but for also for his humanitarian work and contributions to the world of classical music as a whole.

A child prodigy, he first studied under Louis Persinger and later Romanian violinist and composer, George Enescu.

You could say he was truly a citizen of the world, born in the USA to Russian Jewish parent’s he became a Swiss citizen in 1970 and a British citizen in 1985. He performed all over the world during his illustrious career.

Yehud Menuhin on music

His recording contract with EMI was the longest in the history of the music industry, lasting almost 70 years from his first recording aged thirteen in 1929, to his final recording aged eighty three in 1999. He recorded over 300 works both as a violinist and conductor.

His legacy lives on in the form of his music school in Surrey (where Adelia Myslov, the violinist who recorded the soundtrack for my novel, The Virtuoso, attended). Adelia spoke of performing with him and I could see they were very special memories for her.

Yehudi Menuhin_1976

So many of his You Tube clips are from those halcyon days of black and white; truly vintage performances that I love. For me, Menuhin was the embodiment of virtuosity, his style was romantic without being sentimental, his musicality and phrasing was exquisite. I’ll share some of my favourite performances of his throughout this post.

“In playing Beethoven the violinist should be a medium. There is little that is personal or that can be reduced to ingratiating sounds, pleasing slides and so on. Everything is dictated by the significance, the weight, structure and direction of the notes and passages themselves.” ~ Yehudi menuhin

Rather than populate this post with tons of text, I’d rather give you his voice and music…

A Violonist in Hollywood – Yehudi Menuhin in coversation with Humprey Burton:

The focus of the film is on previously unreleased footage from the legendary Hollywood music film, Concert Magic from the year 1947. In interviews and conversations with his biographer Humphrey Burton, Yehudi Menuhin recalls the origin of the film, the war and post-war era in America and Germany. Special attention is paid to his commitment to the victims of World War II. These include great artists forced into American exile such as fellow musician Béla Bartók.

During the Second World War Yehudi Menuhin helped to raise the spirits of war victims and refugee children with numerous concerts. He supported artists in American exile, performed for an audience of freed prisoners of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, and in war ravaged Berlin he played demonstratively under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwängler.

Looking back at the mid-1940’s it is clear to see with what passion Menuhin linked his goals of musical excellence with a dedication to social causes. He used music to plead for justice and reconciliation often against strong resistance.

“Each human being has the eternal duty of transforming what is hard and brutal into a subtle and tender offering, what is crude into refinement, what is ugly into beauty, ignorance into knowledge, confrontation into collaboration, thereby rediscovering the child’s dream of a creative reality incessantly renewed by death, the servant of life, and by life the servant of love.” ~ Yehudi Menuhin

Yehudi Menuhin School

The Menuhin School was set up in 1963 for musically gifted children and is based in beautiful grounds at Stoke d’Abernon near Cobham in Surrey. I attended a classical concert there last year when Adelia was performing with Craig White; many of the school’s alumni are invited to return. It’s the spiritual home of violin tuition, with Lord Menuhin’s grave located in the grounds near the performance hall.

Menuhin grave

Violinist David Hope was lucky enough to be taught and mentored by Yehudi Menuhin, and talks about his journey with the late maestro and also his latest album, My Tribute to Yehudi Menuhin:

Current violinists fortunate to have been taught by Lord Menuhin include Nigel Kennedy, Nicola Benedetti, Paul Coletti and Peter Tanfield.

The Menuhin Competition

Set up in 1983, this is the world’s foremost violin completion for young musicians under 22. The Menuhin Competition is held every two years in different locations around the world. Past winners include Julia Fischer, Ray Chen, Lara St. John, Tasmin Little and Ilya Gringolts. The 2016 final was won earlier this month by Chinese violinist Ziyu He.

“I would hate to think I am not an amateur. An amateur is one who loves what he is doing. Very often, I’m afraid, the professional hates what he is doing. So, I’d rather be an amateur.” ~ Yehudi Menuhin

Instruments

As you would expect from a musician of his calibre Yehudi Menuhin played on several famous violins, the most famous of which was the Lord Wilton Guarnerius of 1742.  Among his other violins were the Giovanni Bussetto 1680, the Giovanni Grancino 1695, the Guarneri filius Andrea 1703, the Soil Stradivarius, the Prince Khevenhüller 1733 Stradivarius, and the Guarneri del Gesù 1739.

David Fulton - current owner of the 1742 Lord Wilton ex Yehudi Menuhin Guarnerius

David Fulton – current owner of the 1742 Lord Wilton ex Yehudi Menuhin Guarnerius

I couldn’t find a clip where I could be sure Menuhin was performing on his Lord Wilton, but I have found one of James Ehnes playing Tchaikovsky’s Melody on it in 2012.  He made a series of recordings on famous Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu violins. It seems to possess a very rich, deep and powerful tone.

Performance clips

The Menuhin Century: (Ave Maria, Flight of the Bumblebee):

I think I’m going to have to purchase this!

Beethoven Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 with the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Colin Davis in 1962:

Yehudi Menuhin, aged 22 performing the Mendelssohn violin concerto in E minor, Op. 64 with his teacher, George Enescu conducting:

I absolutely adore his Bach Chaconne solo!

An iconic recording with David Oistrakh of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D minor:

The second movement of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No.1in D Major:

A fabulous vintage video of Menuhin in rehearsal and performance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, KV 216:

A vintage recording of Menuhin performing Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto with Elgar conducting the LSO:

Menuhin plays the dramatic third movement of the Saint-Saëns Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, Op. 61 with the LSO:

Tchaikovsky’s Sérénade Mélancolique with the RPO:

Teaching

 Violin Tutorial – Left Hand First Exercises:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvV4A6lz-0w 

Left Hand Playing:

Keeping it in the family 

Performing with his sister Yaltah (on the piano), in a feisty rendition of Sarasate’s Habanera:

Accompanied by his son Jeremy Menuhin playing Beethoven’s ‘Spring sonata’ in F Major:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQUzCeIcFnw 

Menuhin performs Beethoven’s ‘Archduke’ Trio in 1974 with Rostropovich and Kempff:

Collaborations

Indian Classical Music with Ravi Shankar, Alla Rakha and Yehudi Menuhin:

Yehudi Menuhin & Ravi Shankar – Tenderness:

In his jazz mood with Stephane Grappelli! Autumn Leaves:

Jacob Gade’s tango – Jalousie:

I haven’t really touched on the technical difficulties he faced in the latter part of his career, because despite his virtuosic decline he was always an outstanding musician, conductor and human being.

Poster at the performance hall of Yehudi Menuhin School

Poster at the performance hall of Yehudi Menuhin School

“Actually, I was gazing in my usual state of being half absent in my own world and half in the present. I have usually been able to ‘retire’ in this way. I was also thinking that my life was tied up with the instrument and would I do it justice?” ~ Yehudi Menuhin

The Great Virtuoso Violinists/Composers of the 19th Century: Sarasate

“A sandwich and a cup of coffee, and then off to violin-land, where all is sweetness and delicacy and harmony.” ~ Arthur Conan-Doyle (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes)

I’m excited to share the sublime music of Pablo de Sarasate with you. He’s one of my favourite composers of 19th century romantic violin music. His tunes are so evocative of his Spanish homeland, but more than that, they are infused with virtuosic flair, memorable folk tune melodies and romantic lyricism.

Sarasate quote-a-genius-for-37-years

Every time I hear his music my heart flutters…especially when played with a colourful tone and expressiveness.

His music always transports me to another time and reality; a place filled with Mediterranean warmth, caballeros, siestas inside white washed houses topped with cinnamon coloured terracotta tiles, dramatic mountain scenery, cicada filled olive groves, dusty plains and shimmering beaches sprawling under pinky red streaked skies;  illuminating a vast land with the effulgence of a romantic Spanish sunset.  Ah, I think I got a little carried away there…

You never get the feeling that he sacrificed a good tune for the sake of showing off, he managed to seamlessly integrate technique, flair and melody.

Sarasate with his Stradivarius

He may not have written a violin concerto, but his repertoire of fifty seven brilliant compositions for violin and piano and or orchestra more than make up for it.

Pablo de Sarasate: 10 March 1844 – 20 September 1908

Born with a spectacular name entirely befitting his talents, Pablo Martín Melitón de Sarasate y Navazcués, grew up in the city of Pamplona in Spain’s northern province of Navarre.

He must have imbibed the fiery atmosphere of the San Fermin Festival and the “Running of the Bulls” every summer, and somehow transmuted all that thrill, tradition and dangerous daring of nature into his music.

Bull-run monument in Pamplona

Bull-run monument in Pamplona

Famed for his own romantic and virtuosic performances, one can only marvel at his brilliance. His music is mostly for advanced violinists because that was his skill level on the instrument. No shirking for Pablo; or indeed us wannabe virtuosos for that matter!

Sarasate’s genius on the fingerboard influenced many well-known composers. The French romantic composer, Camille Saint-Saëns, wrote and dedicated his third Violin Concerto and the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso in A minor for him.

Jascha Heiftez blows me away with this performance:

Other compositions written in his honour include Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy and Wieniawski’s Second Violin Concerto. Sarasate’s style of performing had a direct impact on how other composers of the era formed their violin solo passages.

The early days

Spain’s cherished and foremost violinist/composer began lessons at the age of five, being taught initially by his father who was a bandmaster. He gave his first concert at the age of eight, which secured him patronage to study in Madrid under Manuel Rodríguez Saez, where he became popular with Queen Isabella II of Spain.

At the age of twelve he was sent for tutelage under Jean-Delphin Alard at the Paris Conservatoire, but the journey from Pamplona to Paris proved to be a tragic one. Soon after their train had crossed the border into France, Sarasate’s mother died of a heart attack and Pablo himself was found to be suffering from Cholera. Fortunately he recovered and was able to continue his studies. In 1861 he won first prize in the prestigious Premier Prix in Paris.

Pablo-de-Sarasate-sepia-photo1

Thus began his touring soloist’s career. He was one of the early recording artists also, with a performance in 1904 that prompted a reviewer to write he had “the fleetest fingers and bow arm in the history of recorded sound”.

Not only was he popular in London and Europe, but he also toured America, South Africa and Asia.

Operatic inspiration

In his early career Sarasate performed mostly opera fantasies, including his evocative and beautiful Carmen Fantasy based on Georges Bizet’s seductive and passionate opera, Carmen.

1875 poster for Bizet's opera Carmen

1875 poster for Bizet’s opera Carmen

It’s technically very challenging and demanding (as you would expect from a violinist of his caliber), containing elements and adaptations from the Aragonaise, Habanera, an interlude, Seguidilla, and the Gypsy Dance.

Inspired by Sarasate’s work, film composer Franz Waxman wrote a similar piece, his Carmen Fantasie in 1946, which I also adore.

It would be remiss of me not include some stratospheric performances of his Opus 25!

Gil Shaham shows us how it’s done:

I also love Itzhak Perlman:

And of course, it would be rude not to feature this stunning performance by Maxim Vengerov of Waxman’s Sarasate inspired version of Carmen:

Other Operatic Fantasies

 The Magic Flute Fantasy with Gil Shaham:

Faust Fantasy, Op. 13- Pablo de Sarasate Gil Shaham:

Fantasy on Mozart’s Don Giovanni (performer unknown):

Concert Fantasy on Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, Op. 5:

Gypsy Airs (Zigeunerweisen), Opus 20

Zigeunerweisen is Sarasate’s most popular composition, and was written for violin and orchestra in 1878 and premiered the same year in Leipzig. It features the themes of the Roma people, and in part also the csárdás, which was ‘borrowed’ from a theme previously used in Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13, composed in 1847.

A Gypsy Dance in the Gardens of the Alcázar by Alfred Dehodencq

A Gypsy Dance in the Gardens of the Alcázar by Alfred Dehodencq

Sarasate recorded his best loved work in 1904, but since then it has been recorded by many violinists, being a popular stalwart of the virtuoso’s repertoire.

My crumpled violin score of Zigeunerweisen (rescued from the clutches of my youngest)

My crumpled violin score of Zigeunerweisen (rescued from the clutches of my youngest)

Technical data courtesy of Wikipedia.

Zigeunerweisen is in one movement but can be divided into four sections, the first three in the key of C minor and the last in A minor, based on the tempi:

Moderato – An imposing, virtuosic introduction with slow majestic energy by the orchestra, then a little softer by the violin itself.

Lento – The violin plays in lugubrious lento 4/4. This section has an improvisational quality; the melody, which essentially consists of pairs of 4-bar phrases, is punctuated with difficult runs and other technically demanding figures, including flying spiccato and ricochet bowings.

Un poco più lento – The muted soloist plays a melancholic melody with the so-called reverse-applied dotted note (1/16 + dotted 1/8 rhythm), akin to the “Mannheim sigh” of the classical era; in 2/4 time.

Allegro molto vivace – At this point, the piece becomes extremely rapid. The challenging solo part consists mainly of long spiccato runs, along with double stops, artificial harmonics and left-hand pizzicato; in 2/4 time.

This is undoubtedly my favourite from Sarasate’s romantic oeuvre, and I love this exquisite performance by Belgian violin ace Arthur Grumiaux:

The inimitable Itzhak Perlman:

The shortened vintage version recorded by Sarasate in 1904:

I can’t forget Jascha Heifetz either!!

The Duo Toivio recorded a beautiful transcription for cello and piano:

This arrangement for double bass and guitar with Edgar Meyer and Béla Fleck is lovely:

And perhaps even more impressive is the amazing duo of two violins and piano. Hyun-su Shin and Clara Jumi Kang display perfect timing and intonation in their stylistic duet:

Sarasate lived the latter part of his life in Paris, in a home that had been decorated by none other than the American Post-Impressionist artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who also painted a wonderful portrait of him at the same time.

Pablo de Sarasate - Arrangement in black by James Abbot McNeill Whistler

Pablo de Sarasate – Arrangement in black by James Abbot McNeill Whistler

Now quite wealthy he purchased a holiday home, a villa in Biarritz, but would return to Pamplona for the festival every year.

It seems to me from his paintings and photographs that he dressed impeccably, and was ever the perfect gentleman. Sarasate and his music belonged to a romantic era. I’m sure he must have had no shortage of female admirers, but, for whatever reason, he remained a bachelor. No woman could have taken the place of his beloved violin…

His renown as a performer has been immortalised in print, with mentions in plots by novelists Arthur Conan-Doyle, Anthony Burgess and Edith Wharton.

The Sarasate Stradivarius

Pablo played on a 1724 Golden Period Stradivarius, which was bequeathed to the Musee de la Musique at the Paris Conservatoire after his death in 1908, and is now aptly named after their star student, the Sarasate Stradivarius.

His second violin was also a Stradivarius, the 1713 Boissier, which is now owned by Real Conservatorio Superior de Música, Madrid, where he studied as a boy.

Boissier Stradivarius in Madrid

Boissier Stradivarius in Madrid

Here’s a selection of his beautiful, Spanish themed compositions.

Airs Espagnols – great feisty interpretation, but the performers are unknown as they are not mentioned:

Habanera by Itzhak Perlman:

Malagueña Op. 21, No. 1 (Spanish Dances) by Yehudi Menuhin:

Introduction and Tarantelle, Heifetz:

Spanish Dances Op. 22, No. 1 Romanza Andaluza, Leonid Kogan:

Caprice Basque, Op. 24, Itzhak Perlman:

¡Viva Sevilla! Op. 38 (performer unknown):

‘Navarra’ for 2 Violins. Husband and wife team Gil Shaham & Adele Anthony:

Zapateado performed by Henryk Szeryng:

Zortzico Op. 39 with David Oistrakh:

El Canto del Ruiseñor, (song of the nightingale) Ruggiero Ricci:

Nocturnes:

Les Adieux, Op. 9 Tianwa Yang:

George Bernard Shaw once said that though there were many composers of music for the violin, there were but few composers of violin music. But of Sarasate’s talents, both as performer and composer, he said that he “left criticism gasping miles behind him.”

Hasta la próxima vez amigos. ¡Felices Pascuas!